Harper Lee’s character Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird is one of modern literature’s enduring examples of compassion, fairness, and moral uprightness. We see examples of Finch’s sense of fairness and justice in nearly every chapter of the book.
At one point, in the middle of the story, Finch’s son Jem has destroyed the flowers of the dreaded old Mrs. Dubose, a truly hateful woman who loves to torment those who dare to walk past her house. Jem destroyed the flowers in a rage brought on by Mrs. Dubose’s vicious comments about Atticus.
Part of what is so endearing about Atticus’ sense of justice is that he does not care if someone likes him or not, he treats them respectfully and fairly regardless. Atticus does not care that Jem was defending his honor—he makes Jem go to Mrs. Dubose to apologize anyway. When Jem returns from his talk with Mrs. Dubose he and Atticus have the following exchange:
“Atticus,” he said, “she wants me to read to her.”
“Read to her?”
“Yes sir. She wants me to come every afternoon after school and Saturdays and read to her out loud for two hours. Atticus, do I have to?”
“But she wants me to do it for a month.”
“Then you’ll do it for a month.”
Most people would not feel any obligation to be fair and just to a person like Mrs. Dubose. Atticus is exceptional in this regard; even though Mrs. Dubose castigates him publicly, he will not change how he behaves toward her.
One way Atticus shows justice and equality is with his own children, Scout and Jem. His son is older than Scout by about four years, so it would be very easy for Atticus to tell Scout that she has to mind her older brother whenever an adult isn't around, but he doesn't do that. In chapter 14, Jem attempts to tell Scout how to behave, which enrages Scout. She throws a few punches that provoke Jem into fighting with her. When Atticus comes in to break up the fight, Scout says that Jem was trying to tell her what to do. Scout asks her father, "I don't have to mind him now, do I?" (138). Atticus smiles and tells Scout something that she uses later to counter her brother's attempt to boss her around:
"Let's leave it at this: you mind Jem whenever he can make you. Fair enough?" (138).
A parent might say that this response only sets the children up for future fights; however, Atticus shows that he does not base his decision on who is older—he bases it on equality. This way, Jem is unable to gain more control over Scout in the future by saying, "I'm older, and a boy, so you have to obey me" whenever he chooses. Atticus protects Scout as a female and as a younger sibling. This also gives the children power to solve problems between themselves on equitable ground, which is unprecedented in many families.
One of the most obvious examples of Atticus's quest for justice is displayed when he warns Jem that
"... it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." (Chapter 10)
Although Atticus's warning about shooting the songbird comes after Jem and Scout receive air rifles for Christmas, it also is symbolic to the theme of innocence that runs throughout the novel. It refers particularly to Tom Robinson, the innocent man who is falsely accused of rape and is later killed trying to escape from prison.
- Atticus seeks justice for Boo Radley, repeatedly warning his children to "stop tormenting that man." (Chapter 5)
- Atticus admits he is a "nigger-lover": "I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody..." He also believes that the black man deserves to be treated fairly. "There's nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro's ignorance." (Chapter 11)
- Atticus risks his reputation defending Tom Robinson, and he reminds the jury that it is "an evil assumption" to believe that all Negroes are immoral or untrustworthy. (Chapter 20)