What does Atticus Finch do for a living in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is an attorney. This is significant because he is appointed to be the public defender for Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of the beating and rape of Mayella Ewell, a white woman. This draws a great amount of ire from the racist town of Maycomb and inspires criticism of the Finch family. Despite this, Atticus boldly defends Tom, clearly illustrating that Tom did not commit the crime and making it evident that it was Mayella's father who was responsible. However, due to the attitudes toward black individuals in the town, Tom is found guilty and sent to prison, where he is shot before Atticus has the chance to appeal. 

As an interesting side note, Atticus's character is based on Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper Lee's father. Like Atticus, Amasa was a lawyer; in fact, he defended two black individuals who were accused of killing a white storekeeper. Ultimately, the case—like Atticus's case—was lost, and the two men were hung. 

price7781 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus Finch is a well-respected lawyer in Maycomb, Alabama.  He is chosen to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell.  The Finches are a well-established family in Maycomb and have the respect of its citizens.  He is probably the one person who will have a chance to save Tom from going to prison.  He saves Tom from a lynching mob one night, and it is because of the town's respect for him, and with a little bit of help from Scout, that he is able to diffuse the mob from carrying out their plan.  More importantly, Atticus is respected by the black community.  Even though he is unsuccessful in his defense of Tom Robinson, the black community understands that Atticus tries to give Tom the best defense to prove his innocence.  As Atticus leaves the courtroom, the black community stands up in the balcony as he passes to show their respect.  Atticus is a symbol of changing values in the South because of his empathy and regard for all people.