How does the setting and events help to portray Atticus in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, there are many scenes that show the true character of Atticus Finch.

Atticus has to kill a rabid dog, Tim Johnson. Atticus' children have no idea that their father is a "crack shot." He is very humble about this skill, never speaking of it. Consequently, his children believe he is a feeble old man—especially because he doesn't play football with Jem. He is older, but Atticus is still an excellent marksman. Heck Tate pushes Atticus to kill the dog because of only he can:

"Take him, Mr. Finch." Mr. Tate handed the rifle to Atticus; Jem and I nearly fainted.

"Don't waste time, Heck," said Atticus. "Go on."

"Mr. Finch, this is a one-shot job."

Atticus shook his head vehemently: "Don't just stand there, Heck! He won't wait all day for you—"

"For God's sake, Mr. Finch, look where he is! Miss and you'll go straight into the Radley house! I can't shoot that well and you know it!"

"I haven't shot a gun in thirty years—"

Mr. Tate almost threw the rifle at Atticus. "I'd feel mighty comfortable if you did now," he said.

Atticus expertly kills the dangerous animal before it can harm anyone.

With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus's hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder.

The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumpled on the sidewalk...He didn't know what hit him.

Miss Maudie calls Atticus "One-Shot Finch." Jem is at a complete loss for words. Heck Tate is amused with the boy's bewilderment over his father's prowess with a gun. Atticus wants no fuss.

"What's the matter with you, boy, can't you talk?...Didn't you know your daddy's—"

"Hush, Heck," said Atticus, "let's get back to town."

Atticus' ability to use a gun so well shows again what kind of man he is when the mob comes to the jail to lynch Tom Robinson. Atticus could have taken a gun, but he does not. He takes a lamp, and goes about dealing with the men by reason. Not once (even in fear of the children's lives) does he reach for a weapon.

When Bob Ewell spits in Atticus' face, Atticus again shows the kind of character he has—always because he is trying to set a good example for his children. Whereas someone else would probably have punched, Ewell, Atticus is the bigger man. He walks away.

...Atticus was leaving the post office when Mr. Ewell approached him, cursed him, spat on him, and threatened to kill him...Atticus didn't bat an eye, just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face and stood there and let Mr. Ewell call him names...Mr. Ewell was a veteran of an obscure war; that plus Atticus' peaceful reaction probably prompted him to inquire, "Too proud to find, you n***er-lovin' bastard?"...Atticus said, "No, too old," put his hands in his pockets and strolled on.

Other men would not have been so tolerant.

The strongest example of Atticus' character is seen in how he raises his children, by example. He is respectful to Mrs. Dubose, even when she is hateful. When she dies, he explains his take on her bravery to Jem.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do...According to her views, she died beholden to nothing...She was the bravest person I ever knew.

Atticus shows what is important by how he lives.

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Every scene in which characters are openly contentious of each other, and where there are instances of social dissention are the key elements used effectively to contrast the backward mentality of the people of Maycomb againstthe straight forward and open-minded nature of Atticus Finch. Harper Lee uses Maycomb as the baseline from which major changes will arise; sort of as a foundation upon which something extraordinary will either make it or not.

Lee uses the character of Atticus as the counterpart of Maycomb. Atticus is the gentleman warrior, the advocate of the weak, and the educator of the ignorant. He is the guide of the socially lost, and the patriarch of a family in need of a maternal figure. In other words, the setting of Maycomb, a town which is described by Scout as "old", "tired", and which eventually will show itself to be racist and prejudiced is what helps the greatness of Atticus's nature stand out above and beyond it. It is a literary technique that sets an atmosphere of light versus darkness in the novel: Maycomb is the darkness and Atticus is the light.

Yet,Atticus and Maycomb are interdependent of each other. After all, Scout did say that Atticus liked Maycomb and that he is "Maycomb born and raised". The question of how a man who is so brilliant in thought and analysis can remain in a town like Maycomb is what sets the tone for the contrast between the man and his circumstances.

The best example that could further accentuate the greatness of Atticus Finch versus his surroundings occurs during the trial, in Chapter 21. Scout narrates,

Then he left the courtroom, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle toward the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up.

Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.

“Miss Jean Louise?”

I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Syke’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

In this scene Atticus, after accepting the brief to the case of Tom Robinson is attending his duties as Robinson's defense attorney. The black people of Maycomb are only allowed to use the upstairs part of the courtroom to go and witness the dynamics taking place at the courtroom at that time. Scout, is very focused staring at her father who is simply tending to his usual duties. Scout is also in the upstairs level with the black citizens of Maycomb.

So enthralled is Scout at every movement her father makes that she does not realize that, as her father leaves the courtroom, the people in the upper level, the colored people of Maycomb all stood up in an act of tremendous respect and admiration for Atticus Finch

That scene strongly evidences thehuge contrast between Maycomb and Atticus. Even the people notice that Atticus is not just a product of Maycomb: He is much more, and he stands out tremendously. This is how the setting serves: Atticus by helping him stand out from its history, its weaknesses, and its realities.  

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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