What is Atticus Finch's importance in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Atticus Finch serves as the moral conscience of Maycomb, a man all people--white and black, rich and poor--can turn to in a time of need. He is the quintessential Southern liberal of the period, a Lincolnesque character who cannot tell a lie, treats all people equally, and rarely has a bad word to say about anyone (except possibly Bob Ewell). A widower, he does his best to bring up his children in an even-handed manner without depriving them of their needed independent streaks. He always finds time to answer their questions honestly, provide them with good advice, and take Scout on his knee for a story each night. Although Scout is the narrator, and the story mostly revolves around the two children (and sometimes their friend, Dill), Atticus emerges as the central and most powerful figure. In Atticus Finch, author Harper Lee (who based Atticus on her own attorney father) creates one of the most admired characters in all of American literature, and he is probably the most well known and best-loved lawyer of any novel. (Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning portrayal brought Atticus to life on screen, and his performance has routinely been voted one of the best in cinematic history.) In addition to being the best known lawyer in Maycomb, Atticus serves as the town's representative in the Alabama legislature, running unopposed each election. He is respected by all who know him, as evidenced by the lynch mob's willingness to obey Atticus's directive to speak quietly so as not to awake the sleeping Tom Robinson--the man they had come to kill.
In obedience to my father, there followed what I realized later was a sickeningly comic aspect of an unfunny situation: the men talked in near-whispers. (Chapter 15)
Even his detractors respect him for his diligence and perserverence. When one of the members of the Idlers' Club suggests that Atticus was only appointed to defend Tom and may not be motivated to fully give his all at the trial, another member disagrees.
"Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That's what I don't like about it." (Chapter 16)
Atticus knows that he has little chance to actually see Tom acquitted, but like Mrs. Dubose, Atticus decides to tackle the case knowing he's
"... licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." (Chapter 11)
Atticus could not save Tom, but he did sway one member of the jury--one of the Cunninghams who had come to lynch Tom--to his side. It was only a small victory--a "baby-step"--for Atticus, who would live to be an old man and still be the one his grown children turned to "to settle an argument." In a typical, fair-minded Atticus manner he would say "we were both right."