Examples Of Empathy In To Kill A Mockingbird

What are some examples in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee which demonstrate Atticus's advice to Scout about "getting into another person's skin" and seeing things from other people's point of view?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus Finch is one of the primary characters in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and he is an extraordinary man. He is an excellent lawyer and politician, a wonderful father, and an exemplary citizen. He is also a great teacher, and his children (particularly Scout) are his best pupils.

Scout is young (five or six years old) when the story begins, and of course she has a lot to learn simply because she is young. Scout is quite bright and advanced in many ways; however, she is also impetuous and quick to fight or speak out against anything she thinks is wrong or different. That sounds like a good thing, but of course she needs to learn to be more discerning about what is right and wrong. This is something Atticus consistently tries to teach his children throughout the story.

In chapter three of the novel, Scout has had a horrible first day of school, and she does not want to go back. We understand her feelings, as does Atticus, but of course she has to go back. Atticus gives her some advice which he hopes will help her learn not only to tolerate others but to be more empathetic toward them.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-”
“-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Of course this is great advice for all of us, not just Scout. Everyone has a story, and before we judge too harshly or speak critical words about someone, we should try to get at least a little perspective on the other person's situation. In everyday life. This means realizing something bad might have happened to a classmate before he arrived at school instead of assuming he is just moody, or understanding that a teacher might not just be crabby but is coming down with a cold and does not feel well.

In the incident with Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, Atticus tries to teach both of his children to look beyond the obvious and see someone's character more than the outward things. Mrs. Dubose taunts the children mercilessly and cruelly, but there is a reason for her vile spewing. 

After the children kind of pay their dues by reading to her and then she dies, Atticus explains why what they did was so important to him:

"I wanted you to see what real courage is.... It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." 

He wanted them to see inner courage instead of thinking courage was being a good shot with a gun or some other physical act.

After the trial when Bob Ewell spits in Atticus's face, Atticus again takes the opportunity to teach his children about empathy. He speaks to Jem here, but of course Scout is always nearby to soak up everything Atticus is teaching.

Atticus literally asks Jem to "stand in Bob Ewell's shoes a minute," reminding Jem of how Atticus had made Ewell look foolish in court (which of course was Ewell's fault, not Atticus's). If Ewell could direct his frustration and abuse on Atticus, Atticus was happy to take it in order to spare Ewell's children any further abuse. 

Scout finally meets Arthur Radley at the end of the story, and it is a revelation to her. After walking Boo home she says:

"Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough."

Atticus's lessons worked.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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