What is the thematic significance of the advice Atticus gives Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?  

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mrshh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus speaks to his children as he would to adults.  He is respectful of their levels of intelligence and understanding. He often gives Scout advice, and much of it is aligned with the themes of the novel.  Atticus serves as a moral compass throughout the novel, and his wisdom is in agreement with the novel's themes.  He advises Scout on some of the following themes:

Empathy:  Scout is frustrated with her new teacher, Miss Caroline.  Scout had tried to explain to Miss Caroline why Walter Cunningham would not borrow a quarter from her.  Instead of being grateful, Miss Caroline got upset with Scout and punished her.  Scout tells her father what happened:

Atticus said I had learned many things today, and Miss Caroline had learned several things herself.  She had learned not to hand something to a Cunningham, for one thing, but if Walter and I had put ourselves in her shoes we'd have seen it was an honest mistake on her part (To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 3).

Atticus wants his daughter to show empathy toward Miss Caroline.  Rather than be angry, he wants Scout to understand why her teacher had become upset.  Atticus encourages Scout to put herself in someone else's shoes on several occasions.

Growing up:  Scout notices that Jem behaves differently as he grows older.  She asks her father what is wrong with Jem.  Atticus explains that Jem is growing up and advises her about how to handle it:

Atticus said... Jem was growing. [She] must be patient with him and disturb him as little as possible (Chapter 12).

Seeing humanity in people:  Atticus reads a story to Scout.  Scout points out that the character in the book is a nice person.  Atticus gives his daughter a piece of advice:

"Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them" (Chapter 31).

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator


Prejudice.  Atticus directs Scout to stop using the "N" word because it is "common," but he is also teaching her that it is representative of a racist mind, even though Scout is too young to recognize it.

Tolerance.  Atticus's advice about climbing into the other person's skin in order to understand them better is taught to prevent Scout from fighting as well as learning how to get along with others.

Innocence.  Atticus obliges Scout's question about "What's rape?" because he always tries to answer his children's questions honestly.

Loss of Innocence.  Atticus demands that Jem and Scout leave the jail on the night that the Cunninghams arrive because he knows what will probably happen, and he does not want his children to see him beaten or witness Tom taken for a lynching.

Knowledge vs. Ignorance.  Atticus insists upon Scout returning to school because he knows that a public education will be better for her than the old fashioned home schooling he has received.

Courage vs. Cowardice.  Atticus forces Jem to read to Mrs. Dubose because he wants his son to

"... see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand."  (Chapter 11)

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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