What themes does Atticus support in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Without Atticus Finch, there wouldn't be many themes in To Kill a Mockingbird at all. He outlines a theme and Scout and Jem discover it. For example, the title of the book is a theme that originates with something that Atticus says when the children receive air rifles for Christmas:

"I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot at all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird" (90).

Miss Maudie breaks the meaning of this passage down for Scout by explaining that mockingbirds don't do anything to hurt anybody. They provide sweet songs to listen to and they aren't pests to farmers or anyone else. Anyone who has the advantage over a mockingbird and takes it is committing a sin because it's a defenseless fight. This is symbolic of what happens to Boo Radley and Tom Robinson in the novel as well. They are harmless to society, yet they are taken advantage of by others who have more status or ability than they do, which is unfair and mean. The theme is not to take advantage of others who are defenseless or who have less than you do.

Another theme supported by Atticus is to stand up for other people whenever you are called to do so. Atticus is appointed by Judge Taylor to take the Tom Robinson case. He didn't choose it--it chose him. But rather than do a sloppy job of it to get it out of the way, Atticus stands up to the prejudice surrounding the case by doing his best for his client. The following is a moment when Scout asks her father if he is going to win the Tom Robinson case:

"'Atticus, are we going to win it?'

'No, honey.'

'Then why--'

'Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win'" (76).

Atticus is referring to the hundreds of years of white men keeping black people as slaves. After the Civil War freed them, discrimination in the South was substituted as the new way to keep the black population down and out of control socially and politically. Even though the odds are against his case and his client, Atticus still stands up for what is right.

One final theme to touch on is when Atticus teaches Jem about what true courage is. In chapter 11, Mrs. Dubose calls Atticus terrible names to his children, not to his face. Atticus doesn't hold a grudge, though. In fact, he admires her because she conquers her morphine addiction before she dies. Atticus says the following:

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun inĀ  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. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew" (112).

Again we see the theme of persevering when the odds are stacked against you; but we also see what courage and bravery are. Atticus says that following through with a goal that seems hard to achieve takes courage, not solving problems with guns or negative influences.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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