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Atticus Finch, the calm, commanding voice of moral authority in Harper Lee's classic coming-of-age novel To Kill a Mockingbird is the quintessential modern literary hero. He is self-effacing, smart, well-educated, committed to doing what he believes is right, and willing to sacrifice for his principles. He seeks no recognition for his actions, nor does he shy away from being the center of attention when the situation warrants it. There is a scene in Chapter 10 of Lee's novel in which the town sheriff, Heck Tate, arrives at the Finch family doorway accompanied by Atticus, who had been at work. A rabid dog has been seen in the neighborhood, and people are panicked. While Tate is the sheriff, and the symbol of legal authority, it is Atticus who takes the rifle Tate has brought with him and, without speaking or theatrics, quietly aims and fires, felling the dog with one shot. Jem and Scout, Atticus' children, have never seen their taciturn father handle a weapon before, and are suitably impressed by his evident skills with a rifle. Observing the children's shock at what they have witnessed, the sheriff addresses Jem:
“What’s the matter with you, boy, can’t you talk?” said Mr. Tate, grinning at Jem.“Didn’t you know your daddy’s—”
“Hush, Heck,” said Atticus, “let’s go back to town.”
Most men would be demonstrably proud of such a skill, but Atticus is not like most men. His quiet, dignified demeanor sets him apart from most, especially in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. This small vignette is telling, but it is Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson, the African American with the crippled arm who is accused of raping a white woman, that most sets him apart from the rest of humanity, and it is the respectful, understanding manner in which he defends even such lesser town figures as Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, a virulently racist elderly woman, that elevated him above the average citizen of this county. Atticus is, indeed, a heroic literary figure. He is not immortal, and does not save humanity from itself; on the contrary, he loses his case in defense of Tom. He is respectable, and respectful, however, in a town, and in a time, when such characteristics were seldom witnessed.
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