In To Kill a Mockingbird, what does Atticus say about having a meaningful life?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is the symbol and source of courage, goodness, and wisdom. People look up to him to represent good values such as kindness, justice, and mercy. His children look to him for guidance and safety as well. Much of the advice Scout receives from her father is not prefaced with him saying "this will lead to a meaningful life." He simply shows that by living an exemplary life. But he also does it when he shares his wisdom with them when it's needed. For example, Atticus advises Scout the following after her first day of school seems like a failure:

"First of all, . . . 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" (30).

By suggesting to Scout to think of the way others feel in situations that she may not understand, she can then find deeper meaning behind other people's behavior. As a result, she will be able to make better decisions when she interacts with them. Following this advice will help her to empathize with others before judging them and give her a purpose behind maintaining relationships with her neighbors. Furthermore, if Scout practices this advice, she will be more content and patient when disagreements or misunderstandings occur. Practicing a patient and nonjudgmental life isn't easy, though. Many people resort to using verbal insults and even violent threats to handle their problems. People like this are reactive, not proactive. Therefore, the only way to find meaning in life is to live it with patience and courage. For instance, Atticus shares how he feels about courage as follows:

"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 but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do" (112).

Atticus wants his children to know that living a meaningful life takes courage, but that doesn't mean using guns or even fighting only the battles they know they can win. Sometimes it's fighting the losing battles that define us and bring a deeper meaning to our lives. When Atticus takes the Tom Robinson case, he does so knowing that he will lose in court. He takes the case because he knows that if he doesn't, he won't be living up to his full potential, and the point of his education, talent, and existence would all be for nothing. Atticus vocalizes these feelings when he tells Scout the following about fighting a losing battle by taking the Tom Robinson case:

"The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again" (75).

The above passage shows that Atticus feels as though he would be living beneath his value standards and diminishing his life's purpose if he doesn't take the case. He knows it is his turn to step up and provide the world with what he can offer it. When a person doesn't step up to his or her calling, purpose and meaning can be diminished. 

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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