What are examples of prejudice that Atticus Finch shows in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird? What other values does Atticus show?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is generally characterized as the one who represents the antithesis of a prejudiced society by being unprejudiced himself. One of his most famous lines addressed to Scout demonstrates the amount of empathy he has for his fellow humanity and his ability to see things from others' views, without allowing his opinions to be clouded by bias or prejudice:

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. (Ch. 3)

Yet, Harper Lee also made Atticus a very human character. Like all humans, there are at least a couple of places in which he does permit his own thinking to be clouded with prejudice.

The term prejudice can be defined as "any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable" (Random House Dictionary). This tells us that not all prejudiced beliefs are bad beliefs about others; some are good beliefs about others. What makes a judgement prejudiced is that it is not based on sound judgement and facts; it's based on the opinions one holds prior to facts being established.

Knowing that prejudice can refer to a favorable opinion, we can consider one of Atticus's views about Bob Ewell as being prejudiced. The morning after the trial, Bob Ewell spits in Atticus's face and promises to revenge himself on Atticus "if it took the rest of [Ewell's] life" (Ch. 22). Atticus is the only character who doesn't take Ewell's threat seriously. Aunt Alexandra and the Finch children all begin to fear Ewell will cause Atticus some harm. Yet, Atticus insists they "don't have anything to fear from Bob Ewell" and questions "what on earth" Ewell could possibly do (Ch. 23). Atticus thinks this way because he is prone to seeing the good side in people, which prevents him from being able to see the seriousness of their negative traits. When Ewell threatens Atticus's children's lives, Atticus soon learns the error in his thinking. Hence, Atticus erroneously judges Ewell to be harmless, because Atticus is able to see the good in everyone, which shows that Atticus allowed his judgement of Ewell to be clouded by prejudice.

Atticus displays prejudice a second time when responding to Jem's comments and questions about the jury system. After Jem concludes that the jury system is unfair and should be done away with, Jem next asks Atticus, "[W]hy don't people like us and Miss Maudie ever sit on juries? You never see anybody from Maycomb on a jury--they all come from out in the woods" (Ch. 23). In one portion of his reply, Atticus states that women can't serve on juries. He further gives the following speculative reasons as to why women aren't permitted to serve on juries:

I guess it's to protect our frail ladies from sordid cases like Tom's. Besides ... I doubt if we'd ever get a complete case tried--the ladies'd be interrupting to ask questions. (Ch. 23)

Atticus's comments about women's frailty and inability to conduct themselves appropriately reflects that he has allowed his views of women to be clouded by society's prejudiced views of women, which shows that Atticus is equally prejudiced against women. In reality, if Miss Maudie had served on Robinson's jury, the jury would have been hung, and a mistrial would have resulted. If a mistrial had been declared, the case might have been tried again, or the prosecutor might have decided it was impossible to convince a jury and drop the charges.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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