To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers
by Harper Lee

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, what does Atticus mean when he tells Alexandra that he is "in favor of preserving Southern womanhood as much as anybody, but not for preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life?" What is the polite fiction he refers to, and whose life does it threaten?

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In chapter 15, Scout comes home and overhears her father and Aunt Alexandra arguing again. Scout mentions that she heard Atticus telling Aunt Alexandra:

in favor of Southern womanhood as much as anybody, but not for preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life (Lee, 148)

Atticus is discussing his decision to defend Tom Robinson, which is considered taboo to Maycomb's prejudiced population. Aunt Alexandra epitomizes Southern womanhood and is obsessed with her family name and hereditary. She believes that Atticus is ruining their family name because of his unpopular decision to defend a black man. Alexandra could care less about Tom's innocence and is primarily concerned with how Atticus's actions affect their upstanding reputation.

When Atticus tells his sister that he is in favor of Southern womanhood, he is saying that he sympathizes with her desire to maintain a positive reputation. However, he is not willing to preserve "polite fiction" at the expense of human life. The "polite fiction" that Atticus is referring to concerns the false stereotype applied to Tom Robinson that all black men are dangerous and capable of criminal acts. His comment means that people know the story concerning Tom Robinson is false but are willing to act like it is true for the sake of politeness.

It is easier for the racist citizens to believe that a black man assaulted and raped a white woman than it is for them to accept the fact that a white woman tempted a black man. Atticus is telling Alexandra that, although he desires to uphold their respectable family name, he is not willing to idly standby and allow false Southern stereotypes to negatively affect the life of an innocent man.

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