Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Adam Smykowski (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Smykowski, Adam. “Symbolism and Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.” In Readings on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” edited by Terry O'Neill, pp. 52-6. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published online in 1996 as “Symbolism in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird,” Smykowski analyzes Lee's use of symbolism to explore issues of racism in the novel.]

“I'd rather you shoot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This is what Atticus Finch tells his children after they are given air-rifles for Christmas. Uniquely, the title of the classic novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, was taken from this passage. At first glance, one may wonder why Harper Lee decided to name her book after what seems to be a rather insignificant excerpt. After careful study, however, one begins to see that this is just another example of symbolism in the novel. Harper Lee uses symbolism rather extensively throughout this story, and much of it refers to the problems of racism in the South during the early twentieth century. Harper Lee's effective use of racial symbolism can be seen by studying various examples from the book. This includes the actions of the children, the racist whites, and the actions of Atticus Finch.


The actions of the children in this novel certainly do have their share of symbolism. For instance, the building of a snowman by Jem and Scout one winter is very symbolic. There was not enough snow to make a snowman entirely out of snow, so Jem made a foundation out of dirt, and then covered it with what snow they had. One could interpret this in two different ways. First of all, the creation of the snowman by Jem can be seen as being symbolic of Jem trying to cover up the black man and showing that he is the same as the white man, that all human beings are virtually the same. Approval of these views is shown by Atticus when he tells Jem, “I didn't know how you were going to do it, but from now on I'll never worry about what'll become of you, son, you'll always have an idea.” The fire that night that engulfed Miss Maudie Atkinson's house can be seen as the prejudice of Maycomb County, as the fire melted the snow from the snowman, and left nothing but a clump of mud. The fire depicts the prejudice people of the county saying that blacks and whites are, certainly, not the same. Another way of looking at the symbolism of the snowman would be to say that Jem's combination of mud and snow signifies miscegenation, marriage or sexual relations between persons of different races. The fire at Miss Maudie Atkinson's could, once again, be seen as the prejudice of Maycomb County showing that the mixed child is, in fact, no better than a pure black child, and that the two are, actually, one and the same. Jem and Scout's encounters with Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose are also filled with symbolism. Mrs. Dubose and her insults, which included, “Your father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for!” not only show us her own views, but they also represent the views of the rest of Maycomb County. As they were going by the house later that day Jem snatched Scout's baton and “ran flailing wildly up the steps into Mrs. Dubose's front yard. … He did not begin to calm down until he had cut the tops off every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned.” Since camellia flowers are white, their destruction could exemplify Jem trying to destroy the ways of the prejudiced white people of Maycomb County. Later, Atticus forces Jem to nurse the plants back to health, and read to Mrs. Dubose. Now, Jem's nursing of the flowers signifies his courage, and how he nurses his courage, so he will be able to tolerate what others say about him and his family. The children visiting and reading to Mrs. Dubose is symbolic of their aims to change the racist ways of Maycomb. The actions of the children do, indeed, symbolize various themes in the racist South.


The behavior of the prejudiced white people of Maycomb County is greatly expressive, as well. For example, the red geraniums that Mayella Ewell kept in her yard are very illustrative. These flowers represent “Southern white womanhood.” The fence that surrounds the Ewells' property is symbolic of the fear and racism of the Southern whites that tries to protect this womanhood. The purity of the womanhood is being protected from miscegenation, from the black man. As the black quarters lie just beyond the Ewells' house, the entire scene (the flowers, the fence, and the quarters) represents the fear of miscegenation as the threat from the black man is ever-present, and very near. In fact, a sort of miscegenation does occur, as Mayella Ewell makes advances toward Tom Robinson. Her advances startle Bob Ewell and bring about his greatest fear, as he is willing to end an innocent man's life because of it. There is also much racist symbolism used in the court case of Tom Robinson. Bob Ewell stands up and exclaims, “I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin' on my Mayella!” This obscene language, specifically the use of “ruttin,” makes Tom Robinson and black men seem like animals, giving black men a beastial, non-human quality. Mr. Gilmer, the prosecutor, adds to this racist symbolism as he cross examines the witness, Tom Robinson. Mr. Gilmer gives Tom Robinson no respect during his cross examination. He continually calls Tom “boy,” which is racist when referring to a black man. He also adds to the non-human, bestial representation of Tom Robinson by referring to him as a “big buck.” Racist symbolism is mixed with bitter irony during one of Aunt Alexandra's missionary circle meetings, as Mrs. Grace Merriweather talks about the Mrunas in Africa. She tells about how they live in “poverty and darkness,” with no one but J. Grimes Everett to help them. The Mrunas in Africa actually represent how the blacks live poorly in their quarters in Maycomb. The bitter irony is that the ladies feel sorry for, and are so willing to help the Mrunas, that they overlook the problem at home, and even criticize their own black cooks and servants. After the Tom Robinson trial is over, Aunt Alexandra tells Atticus that he shouldn't have let the children watch the trial, and Atticus retorts, “they might as well learn to cope with it. … It's as much Maycomb County as missionary teas.” Atticus symbolically refers to the missionary teas as being just as racist as the trial. Racism does appear in the everyday lives of the narrow-minded people of Maycomb County.


Finally, the actions of Atticus Finch are also symbolic of themes in the prejudiced South. It may not seem so at first, but the shooting of the rabid dog by Atticus was, indeed, greatly illustrative. Here the rabid dog, Tim Johnson, represents prejudice, and how, like a rabid dog, it spreads its disease throughout the South. Atticus Finch is seen as the hero, the avenger, as he kills racism and prejudice, not allowing it to spread itself any further. Realistically, Atticus was unable to dig out the deeply rooted prejudice of Maycomb County. Scout says the trial “was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty.” Throughout the novel, Atticus Finch personifies justice, and acts rationally as the voice of reason. Thus, we are, finally, brought back to the title of the story, To Kill a Mockingbird, as Atticus says, “I'd rather you shoot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Bluejays are viewed as the bullies of the bird world. They are very loud, territorial, and aggressive. The bluejays represent the prejudiced “bullies” of Maycomb County, such as, Bob Ewell. Mockingbirds are innocent, and all they do is sing beautiful songs. They would not harm anyone. Killing a mockingbird was the only thing Atticus had ever told his children was a sin. He also told them, later in the novel, that “As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” What Atticus tells the children is similar to what he said about killing mockingbirds. Therefore, the mockingbird symbolizes Tom Robinson, and underprivileged black people in general. They are innocent, and would never harm anyone. The mockingbird also symbolizes Boo Radley, since he is innocent, and would never harm anyone. He just stays inside because he does not want to face the corrupt and prejudiced world outside. Atticus does, indeed, represent a hero in this novel. He is rational and impartial, in a world that is senseless, emotional, and prejudiced.

Symbolism is, indeed, used extensively by Harper Lee in her timeless classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. The symbolism reveals the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of the common citizens of Maycomb County, the fears they have, and all of the immoral things they do. It also reveals an attempt to rid Maycomb of these feelings, by a hero figure, a model to the community—Atticus Finch, as well as his two children, who will surely follow in his footsteps. It is, in fact, symbolism that makes this novel so rich and pertinent. Therefore, it is rather fitting that Harper Lee ends her book with a very representative and summarizing ending, as Atticus Finch reads the story, The Gray Ghost, to Scout by Jem's bed. Before she falls asleep Scout describes the story, which happened to be about someone who was falsely accused of doing something that he had not done, just like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were. Scout has, certainly, learned a great deal. To Kill a Mockingbird was an influential novel at the time it was written. However, it remains just as important, influential, and, certainly, as symbolic today as when it was first written.


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To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

(Born Nelle Harper Lee) American novelist.

The following entry provides criticism on Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. See also Harper Lee Contemporary Literary Criticism.

Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird has remained enormously popular since its publication in 1960. Recalling her experiences as a six-year-old from an adult perspective, Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed “Scout,” describes the circumstances involving her widowed father, Atticus, and his legal defense of Tom Robinson, a local black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. In the three years surrounding the trial, Scout and her older brother, Jem, witness the unjust consequences of prejudice and hate while at the same time witnessing the values of courage and integrity through their father's example. Lee's first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird was published during the Civil Rights movement, and was hailed as an exposé of Southern racist society. The heroic character of Atticus Finch has been held up as a role model of moral virtue and impeccable character for lawyers to emulate. To Kill a Mockingbird has endured as a mainstay on high school and college reading lists. It was adapted to film in 1962 as a major motion picture starring Gregory Peck.

Plot and Major Characters

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the small, rural town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the early 1930s. The character of Atticus Finch, Scout's father, was based on Lee's own father, a liberal Alabama lawyer and statesman who frequently defended African Americans within the racially prejudiced Southern legal system. Scout and her brother Jem are raised by their father and by Calpurnia, an African-American housekeeper who works for the family. Scout and Jem meet and befriend seven-year-old Dill Harris, a boy who has arrived in Maycomb to stay with his aunt for the summer. Lee has stated that the character of Dill is based on young Truman Capote, a well-known Southern writer and childhood friend. Together with Dill, Scout and Jem make a game of observing “Boo” Radley, a town recluse who has remained inside his house for fifteen years, trying to provoke him to come outside. Local myth holds that Boo eats live squirrels and prowls the streets at night, and the children's perception of him is colored by such tales. In the fall, Dill returns to his family in the North and Scout enters the first grade. Scout and Jem begin to discover mysterious objects, designed to intrigue children, hidden in a tree on the Radley property.

When Tom Robinson, an African-American man, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, Atticus is appointed as the defense attorney. Mayella and her shiftless father, Bob Ewell, live in abject poverty on the outskirts of town. The family is known as trouble and disliked by townspeople. Despite this, Atticus's defense of Tom is unpopular in the white community, and Scout and Jem find themselves taunted at school due to their father's defense of a Black man. Atticus consistently strives to instill moral values in his children, and hopes to counteract the influence of racial prejudice. The children view their father as frustratingly staid and bookish, until he is asked by the sheriff to shoot a rabid dog that is roaming the street. After Atticus kills the dog, Scout and Jem learn that their father is renowned as a deadly marksman in Maycomb County, but that he chooses not to use this skill, unless absolutely necessary. Scout's aunt, Alexandra, unexpectedly arrives to reside with the Finch family, announcing it is time someone reined in the children. She makes it her mission to counteract Atticus's liberal influence on the children and to instill ladylike virtues in the tomboyish Scout. The night before the trial of Tom Robinson is to begin, a group of local men threaten a lynching, but Scout inadvertently disrupts their plan when she recognizes the father of a schoolmate in the crowd of would-be lynchers. When the trial begins, Atticus tries to protect his children from the anger and prejudice they would hear; however, Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak into the courtroom and sit in the balcony with the Black community. Mayella and her father testify that Tom raped Mayella after he was asked onto their property to break up an old chifforobe into firewood. Atticus, however, proves Tom's innocence by demonstrating that while Mayella's face was beaten and bruised on her right side, Tom's left arm had been rendered completely useless by an earlier injury. Therefore, Atticus concludes, Tom could not possibly be the left-handed assailant who struck Mayella on the right side of her face. Atticus further suggests that it was Bob, Mayella's father, who beat her, and that, in fact, no rape occurred. Before the jury departs to deliberate, Atticus appeals to their sense of justice, imploring them not to allow racial prejudice to interfere with their deliberations. However, after two hours, the jury returns with a guilty verdict, sentencing Tom to be executed for rape. Later, Tom is shot to death during an attempt to escape from jail. The following fall, Bob Ewell, incensed by Atticus's treatment of him during the trial, attacks Scout and Jem with a knife as they are walking home from a school Halloween pageant. Boo Radley, secretly observing the scene, intervenes in the scuffle, and Bob Ewell is stabbed and killed in the process. Called to the scene, the Sheriff and Atticus agree to not report Boo's involvement to the police, because a trial against him would likely be prejudiced. Intimately aware of issues of prejudice due to the Tom Robinson case, Atticus and the children agree to report that Ewell fell on his knife in the scuffle, sparing Boo the consequences of a legal trial. Scout realizes in retrospect that Boo has never been the threatening figure the children had imagined, and that he was responsible for leaving the mysterious gifts for them to find on his property. After walking Boo home, Scout stands on the porch of his house looking out, finally seeing the world through a wider perspective.

Major Themes

The central thematic concern of To Kill a Mockingbird addresses racial prejudice and social justice. Atticus Finch represents a strongly principled, liberal perspective that runs contrary to the ignorance and prejudice of the white, Southern, small-town community in which he lives. Atticus is convinced that he must instill values of equality in his children, counteracting the racist influence. Lee makes use of several images and allegories throughout the novel to symbolize racial conflict. The children's attitudes about Boo, for example, represent in small scale the foundation of racial prejudice in fear and superstition. The rabid dog that threatens the town has been interpreted as symbolizing the menace of racism. Atticus's shooting of the rabid dog has been considered by many critics as a representation of his skills as an attorney in targeting the racial prejudices of the town. The central symbol of the novel, the mockingbird, further develops the theme of racial prejudice. For Christmas, Scout and Jem are given air rifles by their father, who warns that, although he considers it fair to shoot other birds, he views it a “sin to kill a mockingbird” because they “don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” The mockingbird represents victims of oppression in general, and the African-American community more specifically. The unjust trial of Tom Robinson, in which the jury's racial prejudice condemns an innocent man, is symbolically characterized as the shooting of an innocent mockingbird. Toward the end of the novel, Scout realizes that submitting Boo to a trial would be akin to shooting a mockingbird—just as the prejudice against African Americans influences the trial of Tom Robinson, the town's prejudices against the white but mentally disabled Boo would likely impact a jury's view. The concept of justice is presented in To Kill a Mockingbird as an antidote to racial prejudice. As a strongly principled, liberal lawyer who defends a wrongly accused Black man, Atticus represents a role model for moral and legal justice. Atticus explains to Scout that while he believes the American justice system to be without prejudice, the individuals who sit on the jury often harbor bias, which can taint the workings of the system. Throughout the majority of the novel, Atticus retains his faith in the system, but he ultimately loses in his legal defense of Tom. As a result of this experience, Atticus expresses a certain disillusionment when, at the conclusion of the book, he agrees to conceal Boo's culpability in the killing of Ewell, recognizing that Boo would be stereotyped by his peers. Atticus decides to act based on his own principles of justice in the end, rather than rely on a legal system that may be fallible.

To Kill a Mockingbird also can be read as a coming-of-age story featuring a young girl growing up in the South and experiencing moral awakenings. Narrated from Scout's point-of-view, the novel demonstrates the now-adult narrator's hindsight perspective on the growth of her identity and outlook on life. In developing a more mature sensibility, the tomboyish Scout challenges the forces attempting to socialize her into a prescribed gender role as a Southern lady. Aunt Alexandra tries to subtly and not-so subtly push Scout into a traditional gender role—a role that often runs counter to her father's values and her own natural inclinations. However, as events around the trial become ugly, Scout realizes the value of some of the traditions Alexandra is trying to show her and decides she, too, can be a “lady.” To Kill a Mockingbird explores themes of heroism and the idea of role models as well. Lee has stated that the novel was essentially a long love letter to her father, whom she idolized as a man with deeply held moral convictions. Atticus is clearly the hero of the novel, and functions as a role model for his children. Early in the story, the children regard their father as weak and ineffective because he does not conform to several conventional standards of Southern masculinity. They eventually realize that Atticus possesses not only skill with a rifle, but also moral courage, intelligence, and humor, and they come to regard him as a hero in his own right.

Critical Reception

Since its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird has been enormously popular with the reading public, has sold millions of copies, and has never gone out of print. The initial critical response to Lee's novel was mixed. Many reviewers lauded the book as a poignant and insightful exposé of racism in the South, and a powerful rendering of modern heroism. Others, however, found fault with Lee's use of narrative voice, asserting that she fails to effectively integrate the voice of the adult Scout with the childish perspective of the young girl who narrates much of the novel. Critical reception of the book has primarily centered around its messages concerning issues of race and justice. Joseph Crespino observed, “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.” Proponents of the novel have championed its usefulness as a teaching tool in high school and college curricula for examining issues of racism and justice. Atticus has been held up by law professors and others as an ideal role model of sound moral character and strong ethical principles. As Steven Lubet remarked, “No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession than the hero of Harper's Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. For nearly four decades, the name of Atticus Finch has been invoked to defend and inspire lawyers, to rebut lawyer jokes, and to justify (and fine-tune) the adversary system.” Since the 1960s, as the discourse around race and justice in America has become more complex and multi-faceted, To Kill a Mockingbird has come under strong criticism for the fundamental values it puts forth. The novel has been criticized for promoting a white paternalistic attitude toward the African-American community. Such critics hold that the novel's central image of the mockingbird as a symbol for African Americans ultimately represents the African-American community as a passive body in need of a heroic white male to rescue them from racial prejudice. Isaac Saney remarked, “Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denial of the historical agency of Black people. They are robbed of their roles as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation. … The novel and its supporters deny that Black people have been the central actors in their movement for liberation and justice.” The status of Atticus Finch as a role model for lawyers has also come under attack in recent years. These critics have scrutinized Atticus from the perspective of legal ethics and moral philosophy, and analyzed his characters' underlying values in relation to race, class, and gender. As Monroe Freedman argued, “Finch never attempts to change the racism and sexism that permeates the life of Maycomb […] On the contrary, he lives his own life as the passive participant in that pervasive injustice. And that is not my idea of a role model for young lawyers.” Yet the character of Atticus continues to have avid defenders. Ann Althouse asserted, “For those entering the legal profession, who commonly worry that they will lose themselves in an overbearing and tainted alien culture, Atticus is a model of integrity.” Althouse concluded, “Atticus Finch is an example: a man who has found a way to live and work as a good person in a deeply flawed society.”

Dean Shackelford (essay date winter 1996-97)

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SOURCE: Shackelford, Dean. “The Female Voice in To Kill a Mockingbird: Narrative Strategies in Film and Novel.” Mississippi Quarterly 50, no. 1 (winter 1996-97): 101-13.

[In the following essay, Shackelford compares To Kill a Mockingbird with its film adaptation in terms of representations of gender. Shackelford argues that, while the book's female narrator infuses the novel with a feminist perspective, the film's visual focus on the point of view of Scout's father undermines this feminist perspective.]

Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn't supposed to be doing anything that required pants. Aunt Alexandra's vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father's lonely life. I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well, but Aunty said that one had to behave like a sunbeam, that I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year. She hurt my feelings and set my teeth permanently on edge, but when I asked Atticus about it, he said there were already enough sunbeams in the family and to go about my business, he didn't mind me much the way I was.1

This passage reveals the importance of female voice and gender issues in Harper Lee's popular Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960. The novel portrays a young girl's love for her father and brother and the experience of childhood during the Great Depression in a racist, segregated society which uses superficial and materialistic values to judge outsiders, including the powerful character Boo Radley.

In 1962, a successful screen version of the novel (starring Gregory Peck) appeared. However, the screenplay, written by Horton Foote, an accomplished Southern writer, abandons, for the most part, the novel's first-person narration by Scout (in the motion picture, a first-person angle of vision functions primarily to provide transitions and shifts in time and place). As a result, the film is centered more on the children's father, Atticus Finch, and the adult world in which Scout and Jem feel alien. As several commentators have noted, the film seems centered on the racial issue much more than on other, equally successful dimensions of the novel. Clearly, part of the novel's success has to do with the adult-as-child perspective. Lee, recalling her own childhood, projects the image of an adult reflecting on her past and attempting to recreate the experience through a female child's point of view.

That the film shifts perspectives from the book's primary concern with the female protagonist and her perceptions to the male father figure and the adult male world is noteworthy. While trying to remain faithful to the importance of childhood and children in the novel, Foote's objective narration is interrupted only occasionally with the first-person narration of a woman, who is presumably the older, now adult Scout. However, the novel is very much about the experience of growing up as a female in a South with very narrow definitions of gender roles and acceptable behavior. Because this dimension of the novel is largely missing from the film's narrative, the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird may be seen as a betrayal of the novel's full feminist implications—a compromise of the novel's full power.

Granted, when a film adaptation is made, the screenwriter need not be faithful to the original text. As Robert Giddings, Keith Selby, and Chris Wensley note in their important book Screening the Novel, a filmmaker's approaches to adapting a literary work may range from one of almost complete faithfulness to the story to one which uses the original as an outline for a totally different work on film.2 Foote's adaptation seems to fall somewhere in between these extremes, with the film decidedly faithful to certain aspects of the novel. His story clearly conveys the novel's general mood; it is obvious he wishes to remain close to the general subject matter of life in the South during the Great Depression and its atmosphere of racial prejudice and Jim Crow. Reflecting on the film, Harper Lee herself states, “For me, Maycomb is there, its people are there: in two short hours one lives a childhood and lives it with Atticus Finch, whose view of life was the heart of the novel.”3

Though admittedly Atticus Finch is at the heart of the film and novel, there are some clear and notable discrepancies between the two versions that alter the unique perspective of the novel considerably—despite what Lee herself has commented. Only about 15٪ of the novel is devoted to Tom Robinson's rape trial, whereas in the film, the running time is more than 30٪ of a two-hour film. Unlike the book, the film is primarily centered on the rape trial and the racism of Maycomb which has made it possible—not surprising considering it was made during what was to become the turbulent period of the 1960s when racial issues were of interest to Hollywood and the country as a whole. Significant, though, are the reviewers and critics who believe this issue, rather than the female child's perspectives on an adult male world, is the novel's main concern and as a result admire the film for its faithfulness to the original.

Many teachers of the novel and film also emphasize this issue to the neglect of other equally important issues. In 1963 and again in the year of the film's twenty-fifth anniversary, the Education Department of Warner Books issued Joseph Mersand's study guide on the novel, one section of which is an essay subtitled “A Sociological Study in Black and White.” Turning the novel into sociology, many readers miss other aspects of Lee's vision. In an early critical article, Edgar Schuster notes that the racial dimensions of the novel have been overemphasized, especially by high school students who read it, and he offers possible strategies for teaching students the novel's other central issues, which he lists as “Jem's physiological and psychological growth” (mentioning Scout's growth in this regard only briefly as if it is a side issue), the caste system of Maycomb, the title motif, education, and superstition.4 What is so striking about Schuster's interpretation is his failure to acknowledge that the issue of Scout's gender is crucial to an understanding not only of the novel but also of Scout's identification with her father.5 As feminists often note, male readers sometimes take female perspectives and turn them into commentaries from a male point of view. Because the novel and film center so much on Atticus, he, rather than Scout, becomes the focus.

With regard to the film, I do not mean to suggest that Foote has not attempted to make some references to Scout's problems with gender identity. When he does, however, the audience is very likely unable to make the connections as adequately as careful readers of the novel might. Of particular interest are two scenes from the film which also appear in the novel. During one of their summers with Dill, Jem insults Scout as the three of them approach the Radley home and Scout whines, fearful of what may happen. As in the novel, he tells her she is getting to be more like a girl every day, the implication being that boys are courageous and non-fearful and girls are weak and afraid (a point which is refuted when Jem's fears of Boo Radley and the dark are demonstrated). Nevertheless, what is most important in the scene is Scout's reaction. Knowing that being called a girl is an insult and that being female is valued less than being male in her small Southern town, she suddenly becomes brave in order to remain acceptable to her brother.

In another scene, as Scout passes by Mrs. Dubose's house and says “hey,” she is reprimanded for poor manners unbecoming of a Southern lady. This scene occurs in both film and novel. However, in the novel Lee clarifies that the presumed insult to Mrs. Dubose originates with Mrs. Dubose's assumptions as a Southern lady, a role which Scout, in the novel especially, is reluctant to assume. The film's lack of a consistent female voice makes this scene as well as others seem unnecessary and extraneous. This is only one example of the way in which the superior narrative strategy of the novel points out the weakness of the objective, male-centered narration of the film.

One scene from the film concerning girlhood does not appear in the novel. Careful not to suggest that the Finches are churchgoers (for what reason?), as they are in the novel, Foote creates a scene which attempts to demonstrate Scout's ambivalence about being female. As Scout becomes old enough to enter school, she despises the thought of wearing a dress. When she appears from her room to eat breakfast before attending school for the first time, Jem ridicules her while Atticus, Miss Maudie, and Calpurnia admire her. Scout comments: “I still don't see why I have to wear a darn old dress.”6 A weakness of the film in this regard is that until this scene, there has been little indication that Scout strongly dislikes wearing dresses, let alone has fears of growing up as a female. The novel makes it clear that Scout prefers her overalls to wearing dresses, which is perhaps why Foote found it necessary to create this particular scene. However, the previous two crucial scenes, while faithful to the novel's general concerns with gender, create loose ends in the film which do not contribute to the success of the narration and which compromise the novel's feminist center.

The intermittent efforts to focus on the female narrator's perspective prove unsuccessful in revealing the work's feminist dimensions. As the film opens, the audience sees the hands of a small girl, presumably Scout, coloring.7 After the credits, a woman's voice, described by Amy Lawrence as a “disembodied voice exiled from the image,” is heard reflecting on her perceptions of Maycomb.”8 By introducing the audience to the social and spatial context, this first-person narrator provides a frame for the whole. The audience at this point, without having read the novel first, may not, however, recognize who the speaker is. As Scout appears playing in the yard, the viewer is left to assume that the voice-over opening the film is the female character speaking as a grown woman. The camera zooms down to reveal Scout and soon thereafter shifts to the standard objective narration of most films.

When the disembodied narrator is heard again, she reflects on Scout's views of Atticus after he insists she will have to return to school; yet, despite what her teacher says, father and daughter will continue reading each night the way they always have. Here the voice-over is designed to emphasize the heroic stature of Atticus and perhaps even to suggest that one reason for Scout's identification with him is his freedom of thought and action: “There just didn't seem to be anyone or thing Atticus couldn't explain. Though it wasn't a talent that would arouse the admiration of any of our friends. Jem and I had to admit he was very good at that but that was all he was good at, we thought” (Foote, P. 35). This intrusion becomes little more than a transition into the next scene, in which Atticus shoots the mad dog.

In the next intrusion the female voice interrupts the objective narration when, at school, Scout fights Cecil Jacobs for calling Atticus a “nigger lover.” She states: “Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fightin' any more. I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot … Cecil Jacobs made me forget” (Foote, p. 42). Here again, the first-person narration provides coherence, allowing the scene of Scout's fight with Cecil Jacobs to be shortened and placing emphasis on the relationship between Atticus and Scout. The subtext of their conversation could perhaps be viewed as a reflection of traditional views that women should not be too aggressive or physical, but this scene, coupled with earlier scenes reflecting social values, is not couched in terms of Scout's transgressive behavior as a woman-to-be. The female voice in the film is not used to demonstrate the book's concern with female identity; rather, it reinforces the male-centered society which Atticus represents and which the film is gradually moving toward in focusing on the trial of Tom Robinson.

Another instance during which the female narrator intrudes on the objective, male-centered gaze of the camera occurs when Jem and Scout discuss the presents Boo Radley leaves for them in the knot-hole. At this point in the film, the attempt to convey the book's female narrative center falls completely apart. Not until after the very long trial scene does the camera emphasize the children's perceptions or the female narrator's angle of vision again. Instead, the audience is in the adult male world of the courtroom, with mature male authority as the center of attention. Immediately after the trial, the film seems most concerned with Jem's reactions to the trial, Jem's recognition of the injustice of the verdict in the Tom Robinson case, and Jem's desire to accompany his father when he tells Helen Robinson that Tom has been killed. Scout is unable to observe directly the last event, and, as a result, the narration is inconsistent—by and large from the rape trial to the end of the film.

The film does, however make use of voice-over narration twice more. In the first instance, the female narrator again provides the transition in time and place to move from the previous scene, the revelation of Tom Robinson's death to his wife, into the confrontation between Atticus and Bob Ewell. As the camera focuses on an autumn scene with Scout dressed in a white dress, Jean Louise prepares the audience for the climax, which soon follows: “By October things had settled down again. I still looked for Boo every time I went by the Radley place. This night my mind was filled with Halloween. There was to be a pageant representing our county's agricultural products. I was to be a ham. Jem said he would escort me to the school auditorium. Thus began our longest journey together” (Foote, p. 72). Following this passage is the climactic scene, when Bob Ewell attacks Scout and Jem and Boo Radley successfully rescues them.

Shortly thereafter, the camera focuses on Scout's recognition of Boo as the protector and savior of Jem and her, and for the remainder of the film, the narration, arguably for the first time, is centered entirely on Scout's perception of the adult male world. She hears Heck Tate and Atticus debate over what to do about exposing the truth that Boo has killed Ewell while defending the children. The movement of the camera and her facial expression clearly indicate that Scout sees the meaning behind the adult's desires to protect Boo from the provincial Maycomb community which has marginalized him—and this scene signifies Scout's initiation into the world of adulthood.

As the film draws to a close, Scout, still in her overalls which will not be tolerated much longer in this society, walks Boo home. For the last time the audience hears the female voice:

Neighbors bring food with death, and flowers with sickness, and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch, and chain, a knife, and our lives. One time Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them. Just standin' on the Radley porch was enough. … The summer that had begun so long ago ended, another summer had taken its place, and a fall, and Boo Radley had come out. … I was to think of these days many times;—of Jem, and Dill and Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson … and Atticus. He would be in Jem's room all night. And he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

(Foote, pp. 79-80)

The film ends, when, through a window, Scout is seen climbing into Atticus's lap while he sits near Jem. The camera gradually moves leftward away from the two characters in the window to a long shot of the house. By the end, then, the film has shifted perspective back to the female voice, fully identified the narrator as the older Scout (Jean Louise), and focused on the center of Scout's existence, her father (a patriarchal focus). The inconsistent emphasis on Scout and her perceptions makes the film seem disjointed.

Noting the patriarchal center of the film, Amy Lawrence suggests the possibility for a feminist reading. She argues that the disembodied narrator—as well as the author, Harper Lee, and the characters of Scout and Mayella Ewell—provides a “disjointed subjectivity” on film which is characteristic of “the experience of women in patriarchy” (p. 184). Such “disjointed subjectivity” is, however, missing from the novel, which centers on Scout's perceptions of being female in a male-dominated South. The novel's female-centered narration provides an opportunity for Lee to comment on her own childlike perceptions as well as her recognition of the problems of growing up female in the South. The feminine voice, while present in the film, receives far too little emphasis.

In the novel the narrative voice allows readers to comprehend what the film does not explain. Though some critics have attacked Lee's narration as weak and suggested that the use of first person creates problems with perspective because the major participant, first-person narrator must appear almost in all scenes, the novel's consistent use of first person makes it much clearer than the film that the reader is seeing all the events through a female child's eyes. Once the children enter the courtroom in the film, the center of attention is the adult world of Atticus Finch and the rape trial—not, as the book is able to suggest, the children's perceptions of the events which unravel before them.

Although it is clear in the film that Scout is a tomboy and that she will probably grow out of this stage in her life (witness the very feminine and Southern drawl of the female narrator, who, though not seen, conveys the image of a conventional Southern lady), the film, which does not openly challenge the perspective of white heterosexuals (male or female) nearly to the degree the novel does, does not make Scout's ambivalence about being a female in an adult male world clear enough. Because the novel's narrative vision is consistently first person throughout and as a result focused on the older Scout's perceptions of her growing-up years, the female voice is unquestionably heard and the narration is focused on the world of Maycomb which she must inevitably enter as she matures.

Furthermore, a number of significant questions about gender are raised in the novel: Is Scout (and, by implication, all females) an outsider looking on an adult male world which she knows she will be unable to enter as she grows into womanhood? Is her identification with Atticus due not only to her love and devotion for a father but also to his maleness, a power and freedom she suspects she will not be allowed to possess within the confines of provincial Southern society? Or is her identification with Atticus due to his androgynous nature (playing the role of mother and father to her and demonstrating stereotypically feminine traits: being conciliatory, passive, tolerant, and partially rejecting the traditional masculine admiration for violence, guns, and honor)? All three of these questions may lead to possible, even complementary readings which would explain Scout's extreme identification with her father.

As in the passage quoted at the beginning of this essays, the novel focuses on Scout's tomboyishness as it relates to her developing sense of a female self. Also evident throughout the novel is Scout's devotion to her father's opinions. Atticus seems content with her the way she is; only when others force him to do so does he concern himself with traditional stereotypes of the Southern female. Especially significant with regard to Scout's growing sense of womanhood is the novel's very important character, Aunt Alexandra, Atticus's sister, who is left out of the film entirely. Early in the novel, readers are made aware of Scout's antipathy for her aunt, who wishes to mold her into a Southern lady. Other female authority figures with whom Scout has difficulty agreeing are her first-grade teacher, Miss Fisher, and Calpurnia, the family cook, babysitter, and surrogate mother figure. When the females in authority interfere with Scout's perceptions concerning her father and their relationship, she immediately rebels, a rebellion which Atticus does not usually discourage—signifying her strong identification with male authority and her recognition that the female authority figures threaten the unique relationship which she has with her father and which empowers her as an individual.

Exactly why Scout identifies with Atticus so much may have as much to do with his own individuality and inner strength as the fact that he is a single parent and father. Since the mother of Scout and Jem is dead, Atticus has assumed the full responsibility of playing mother and father whenever possible—though admittedly he employs Calpurnia and allows Alexandra to move in with them to give the children, particularly Scout, a female role model. However, Atticus is far from a stereotypical Southern male. Despite his position as a respected male authority figure in Maycomb, he seems oblivious to traditional expectations concerning masculinity (for himself) and femininity (for Scout). The children in fact see him as rather unmanly: “When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected on his abilities and his masculinity” (p. 93). Jem is also upset because Atticus will not play tackle football. Mrs. Dubose criticizes Atticus for not remarrying, which is very possibly a subtle comment on his lack of virility. Later the children learn of his abilities at marksmanship, at bravery in watching the lynch mob ready to attack Tom Robinson, and at the defense of the same man. Perhaps this is Lee's way of suggesting that individuals must be allowed to develop their own sense of self without regard to rigid definitions of gender and social roles.

Scout's identification with Atticus may also be rooted in her recognition of the superficiality and limitations of being a Southern female. Mrs. Dubose once tells her: “‘You should be in a dress and camisole, young lady! You'll grow up waiting on tables if somebody doesn't change your ways …’” (p. 106). This is one of many instances in the novel through which the first-person narrator reveals Lee's criticism of Southern women and their narrowmindedness concerning gender roles. Even Atticus ridicules the women's attitudes. In one instance he informs Alexandra that he favors “‘Southern womanhood as much as anybody, but not for preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life’” (p. 149). When Scout is “indignant” that women cannot serve on juries, Atticus jokingly says, “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'” (p. 224). This seemingly sexist passage may in fact be the opposite; having established clearly that Atticus does not take many Southern codes seriously, Lee recognizes the irony in Atticus's statement that women, including his own independent-minded daughter, are “frail.”

Admittedly, few women characters in the novel are very pleasant, with the exceptions of Miss Maudie Atkinson, the Finches' neighbor, and Calpurnia. Through the first-person female voice, Southern women are ridiculed as gossips, provincials, weaklings, extremists, even racists—calling to mind the criticism of Southern manners in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Of Scout's superficial Aunt Alexandra, Lee writes: “… Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she has river-boat, boardingschool manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip” (p. 131). Scout's feelings for Alexandra, who is concerned with family heritage, position, and conformity to traditional gender roles, do alter somewhat as she begins to see Alexandra as a woman who means well and loves her and her father, and as she begins to accept certain aspects of being a Southern female. As Jem and Dill exclude her from their games, Scout gradually learns more about the alien world of being a female through sitting on the porch with Miss Maudie and observing Calpurnia work in the kitchen, which makes her begin “to think there was more skill involved in being a girl” than she has previously thought (p. 118). Nevertheless, the book makes it clear that the adult Scout, who narrates the novel and who has presumably now assumed the feminine name Jean Louise for good, is still ambivalent at best concerning the traditional Southern lady.

Of special importance with regard to Scout's growing perceptions of herself as a female is the meeting of the missionary society women, a scene which, like Aunt Alexandra's character, is completely omitted from the film. Alexandra sees herself as a grand host. Through observing the missionary women, Scout, in Austenian fashion, is able to satirize the superficialities and prejudices of Southern women with whom she is unwilling to identify in order to become that alien being called woman. Dressed in “my pink Sunday dress, shoes, and a petticoat,” Scout attends a meeting shortly after Tom Robinson's death, knowing that her aunt makes her participate as “part of … her campaign to teach me to be a lady” (p. 232). Commenting on the women, Scout says, “Rather nervous, I took a seat beside Miss Maudie and wondered why ladies put on their hats to go across the street. Ladies in bunches always filled me with vague apprehension and a firm desire to be elsewhere …” (p. 232).

As the meeting begins, the ladies ridicule Scout for frequently wearing pants and inform her that she cannot become a member of the elite, genteel group of Southern ladyhood unless she mends her ways. Miss Stephanie Crawford, the town gossip, mocks Scout by asking her if she wants to grow up to be a lawyer, a comment to which Scout, coached by Aunt Alexandra, says, “Nome, just a lady” (p. 233)—with the obvious social satire evident. Scout clearly does not want to become a lady. Suspicious, Miss Stephanie replies, “‘Well, you won't get very far until you start wearing dresses more often’” (p. 233). Immediately thereafter, Lee exposes even further the provincialism and superficiality of the group's appearance of gentility, piety, and morality. Mrs. Grace Merriweather's comments on “‘those poor Mruna’” who live “‘in that jungle’” and need Christian salvation reflect a smug, colonialist attitude toward other races. When the women begin conversing about blacks in America, their bigotry—and Scout's disgust with it—becomes obvious.

Rather than the community of gentility and racism represented in the women of Maycomb, Scout clearly prefers the world of her father, as this passage reveals: “… I wondered at the world of women. … There was no doubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water” (p. 236). The female role is far too frivolous and unimportant for Scout to identify with. Furthermore, she says, “But I was more at home in my father's world. People like Mr. Heck Tate did not trap you with innocent questions to make fun of you. … Ladies seemed to live in faint horror of men, seemed unwilling to approve wholeheartedly of them. But I liked them. … [N]o matter how undelectable they were, … they weren't ‘hypocrites’” (p. 236). This obviously idealized and childlike portrayal of men nevertheless gets at the core of Scout's conflict. In a world in which men seem to have the advantages and seem to be more fairminded and less intolerant than women with their petty concerns and superficial dress codes, why should she conform to the notion of Southern ladyhood? Ironically, Scout, unlike the reader, is unable to recognize the effects of female powerlessness which may be largely responsible for the attitudes of Southern ladies. If they cannot control the everyday business and legal affairs of their society, they can at least impose their code of manners and morality.

To Scout, Atticus and his world represent freedom and power. Atticus is the key representative of the male power which Scout wishes to obtain even though she is growing up as a Southern female. More important, Lee demonstrates that Scout is gradually becoming a feminist in the South, for, with the use of first-person narration, she indicates that Scout/Jean Louise still maintains the ambivalence about being a Southern lady she possessed as a child. She seeks to become empowered with the freedoms the men in her society seem to possess without question and without resorting to trivial and superficial concerns such as wearing a dress and appearing genteel.

Harper Lee's fundamental criticism of gender roles for women (and to a lesser extent for men) may be evident especially in her novel's identification with outsider figures such as Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, and Boo Radley. Curiously enough, the outsider figures with whom the novelist identifies most are also males. Tom Robinson, the male African American who has been disempowered and annihilated by a fundamentally racist, white male society, and Boo Radley, the reclusive and eccentric neighbor about whom legends of his danger to the fragile Southern society circulate regularly, are the two “mockingbirds” of the title. Ironically, they are unable to mock society's roles for them and as a result take the consequences of living on the margins—Tom, through his death; Boo, through his return to the protection of a desolate isolated existence.

Throughout the novel, however, the female voice has emphasized Scout's growing distance from her provincial Southern society and her identification with her father, a symbol of the empowered. Like her father, Atticus, Scout, too, is unable to be a “mockingbird” of society and as a result, in coming to know Boo Radley as a real human being at novel's end, she recognizes the empowerment of being the other as she consents to remain an outsider unable to accept society's unwillingness to seek and know before it judges. And it is perhaps this element of the female voice in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird which most makes Horton Foote's screen adaptation largely a compromise of the novel's full power.


  1. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Popular Library, 1962), pp. 85-86.

  2. Screening the Novel: The Theory and Practice of Literary Dramatization (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), pp. 10-12.

  3. Joseph Mersand, Studies in the Mass Media: To Kill a Mockingbird: 25th Anniversary Brochure and Study Guide (Urbana, Illinois: NCTE, 1963, 1988), p. 18.

  4. Edgar H. Schuster, “Discovering Theme and Structure in the Novel,” English Journal, 52 (1963), p. 507.

  5. The earliest reviewers generally bypass the novel's concerns about being a young female in the South—even when they mention the work's autobiographical dimensions. Recent critics, most notably Harold Bloom and Claudia Durst Johnson, still fail to acknowledge the heavily feminist dimensions of the novel. See Harold Bloom, ed., Harper Lee's “To Kill a Mockingbird”: A Contemporary Literary Views Book (Broomall, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House, 1996). In her useful casebook on and introductory critical study of the novel, Johnson includes the gender issue but still focuses primarily on the novel's concerns about race relations in the South. See Claudia Durst Johnson, ed. Understanding “To Kill a Mockingbird”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents (Westport, Connecticut; Greenwood Press, 1994); and Claudia Durst Johnson, “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Threatening Boundaries (New York: Twayne, 1994). The appearance of the Bloom and Johnson books may indicate a growing interest in the novel as a serious work of literature rather than merely a canonical novel for high school students.

  6. Horton Foote, To Kill a Mockingbird, in Three Screenplays: To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies, and The Trip to Bountiful (New York; Grove Press, 1989), p. 30.

  7. Universal Studios, To Kill a Mockingbird. Directed by Robert Mulligan; produced by Alan Pakula; screenplay by Horton Foote.

  8. Amy Lawrence, Echo and Narcissus: Women's Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 170.

Principal Works

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To Kill a Mockingbird (novel) 1960

Steven Lubet (essay date May 1999)

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SOURCE: Lubet, Steven. “Reconstructing Atticus Finch.” Michigan Law Review 97, no. 6 (May 1999): 1339-62.

[In the following essay, Lubet questions the standard perception of Atticus Finch as a role model for lawyers. Lubet provides an analysis of the trial portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird from the perspective of today's legal defense methods and ethics, particularly in regard to rape trials.]


Atticus Finch.

No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession than the hero of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.1 For nearly four decades, the name of Atticus Finch has been invoked to defend and inspire lawyers, to rebut lawyer jokes, and to justify (and fine-tune) the adversary system. Lawyers are greedy. What about Atticus Finch? Lawyers only serve the rich. Not Atticus Finch. Professionalism is a lost ideal. Remember Atticus Finch.2

In the unreconstructed Maycomb, Alabama of the 1930s, Atticus was willing to risk his social standing, professional reputation, and even his physical safety in order to defend a poor, black laborer falsely accused of raping a white woman. Serving for no fee, Atticus heard the call of justice.3 His defense was doomed to failure by the very nature of Southern life, but Atticus nonetheless succeeded in demonstrating both the innocence of his client and the peculiar sickness of Jim Crow society. Through his deft, courtly, and persistent cross examination, Atticus made it apparent to everyone that Tom Robinson was being scapegoated for a crime that had not even occurred. He even made Tom's innocence apparent to the all-white jury, which deliberated for an unprecedented several hours4 even though the judgment of conviction was a foregone conclusion.

So Atticus Finch saves us by providing a moral archetype, by reflecting nobility upon us, and by having the courage to meet the standards that we set for ourselves but can seldom attain. And even though he is fictional, perhaps because he is fictional, Atticus serves as the ultimate lawyer.5 His potential justifies all of our failings and imperfections.6 Be not too hard on lawyers, for when we are at our best we can give you an Atticus Finch.7

But what if Atticus is not an icon? What if he was more a man of his time and place than we thought? What if he were not a beacon of enlightenment, but just another working lawyer playing out his narrow, determined role?

This review considers the possibility that Atticus Finch was not quite the heroic defender of an innocent man wrongly accused. What if Mayella Ewell was telling the truth? What if she really was raped (or nearly raped) by Tom Robinson? What do we think then of Atticus Finch? Is he still the lawyers' paragon? Were his defense tactics nonetheless acceptable? Does his virtue depend at all on Tom's innocence, or is it just as noble to use one's skills in aid of the guilty? And if we can answer those questions, what conclusions may we draw about contemporary law practice?

Part II sets out three differing narratives of the trial, each of which can be distilled from the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird: Scout's story, Tom's story, and Mayella's story. Confronted with conflicting facts, Part III discusses the ways that Atticus Finch might have resolved them, and how he might have shaped his advocacy to fit his understanding of the truth.


The text of To Kill a Mockingbird contains three distinct narratives of the Atticus Finch story. Two of these stories, as told by Scout, Atticus's daughter, and Tom Robinson, his client, provide the time-honored saga of the virtuous lawyer. The third, barely audible, narrative is that of Mayella Ewell, Tom's accuser. Mayella's story, conveyed to us through Scout's eyes, is told only to be discredited. Though she is pitied as much as censured, the ultimate lesson about Mayella is, above all else, that she is not to be trusted.


Jean Louise Finch, known to everyone as Scout, is Atticus Finch's seven-year-old daughter. We learn of Atticus's exploits only through the child's narration; indeed, Scout is our only source of knowledge of Maycomb, Alabama. Although others witnessed the key events, including Scout's brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, it is Scout alone who tells the story. She is our witness to Atticus as he explains his initial reservations about being appointed to represent Tom Robinson. She sees him, and ultimately helps him, face down a lynch mob outside of Tom's jail cell. Most significantly, Scout chronicles the trial of Tom Robinson, providing her own assessment of the credibility of the witnesses.

Scout's narrative has been characterized, by none other than Harper Lee herself, as “a love story pure and simple.”8 And that is what it is. Atticus can do no wrong. All of his choices are brave and noble, which is why the community of Maycomb ultimately puts its faith in him. Whether saving the town from a rabid dog, representing the county in the state legislature, or exposing the people to their own juridic hypocrisy, Atticus, at least in Scout's eyes, can be counted on to do the right thing.

Thus, Scout's story of the trial is elegant and simple. Mayella and her father, Robert E. Lee Ewell, are simply lying about the rape. Mayella is lying out of shame, and to protect herself from scorn and humiliation, after having been caught aggressively embracing a black man. Bob, as the elder Ewell is known, is lying out of anger and racial hatred. In Bob's world view, no white woman could possibly consent to sexual contact with a black man. So when he saw his daughter kissing Tom, the only explanation had to be rape.

To Atticus, as Scout explains, Mayella and Bob “were absolute trash” (p. 134). In fact, Scout lets us know, she “never heard Atticus talk about folks the way he talked about the Ewells.” Their lying nature was compounded by their general distastefulness. They were dirty, no-account, brutal, prolific, shiftless, diseased, and untrustworthy. Not at all the sort of “decent folks” whom Scout was reared to respect and honor.

And make no mistake, Scout had no respect at all for any of the Ewells, who lived behind the town garbage dump, competing with the “varmints” for refuse (p. 181). In Scout's words,

[e]very town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression. No tr[ua]nt officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.

[p. 181]

Bob Ewell's face was “as red as his neck” (p. 181), and only “if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water” would his skin be white (p. 182).

Scout's assessment of Mayella is slightly more sympathetic, but not much. “A thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labor,” she managed to look “as if she tried to keep clean” (p. 190). Intimidated and in tears from the moment she took the witness stand, to Scout it was all a ploy, in aid of her soon-to-be-told false testimony—“She's got enough sense to get the judge sorry for her” (p. 191). She had some sense of confidence, but “there was something stealthy about hers, like a steady-eyed cat” (p. 192). Mayella was a complete stranger to refinement or even manners. Said Scout, “I wondered if anybody had ever called her ‘ma'am’ or ‘Miss Mayella’ in her life; probably not, as she took offense to routine courtesy. What on earth was her life like?” (p. 194).

Scout soon found out the answer to that question, as Mayella's home life quickly became a theme in Atticus's cross examination. Mayella, the oldest of seven children (whom Scout derisively called “specimen” (p. 194)), had gone to school for only two or three years. Her family lacked money and almost all other necessities:

[T]he weather was seldom cold enough to require shoes, but when it was, you could make dandy ones from strips of old tires; the family hauled its water in buckets from a spring that ran out at one end of the dump—they kept the surrounding area clear of trash—and it was everybody for himself as far as keeping clean went: if you wanted to wash you hauled your own water; the younger children had perpetual colds and suffered from chronic ground-itch; there was a lady who came around sometimes and asked Mayella why she didn't stay in school—she wrote down the answer; with two members of the family reading and writing, there was no need for the rest of them to learn.

[pp. 194-95]

Perhaps worst of all, Mayella had no friends. To Scout, she seemed like “the loneliest person in the world.”9 She seemed “puzzled” at the very concept. “You makin' fun o'me agin?” she asked, when Atticus pressed her on the subject (p. 195). At the end of her testimony, Mayella “burst into real tears,” and would not continue answering questions. Scout interpreted this as contempt on the part of the “poor and ignorant” witness (p. 200).


Tom Robinson worked for Mr. Link Deas, which caused him to pass the Ewell shack every day on his way to and from the field. Mayella often called Tom to come “inside the fence” (p. 203) so that he could help her with chores. Tom refused payment, which caused Scout to think that he “was probably the only person who was ever decent to her” (p. 204). Tom echoed that thought: “[S]he didn't have nobody to help her. … I felt right sorry for her” (p. 209).

Tom never once “set foot on the Ewell property without an express invitation” (p. 204). On the day in question, Tom was returning from work when Mayella called him into the yard, and then asked him to do some work in the house. After Mayella herself shut the door, it occurred to Tom that the house was awfully quiet. He asked Mayella where the other children were. “She says—she was laughin', sort of—she says they all gone to town to get ice creams. She says, ‘Took me a slap year to save seb'm nickels, but I done it. They all gone to town’” (p. 205).

Tom started to leave, but Mayella asked him to take a box down from a high chifforobe. He reached for it, and the next thing he knew “she'd grabbed me round the legs, grabbed me round th' legs” (p. 206). Then she “sorta jumped” on Tom, hugging him around the waist. Tom found it difficult to testify to the next part, but he swallowed hard and continued:

She reached up an' kissed me 'side of th' face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an' she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don't count. She says, ‘Kiss me back, nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an' tried to run but she got her back to the door an' I'da had to push her. I didn't wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an' I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th' window.

[p. 206]

Charging into the room, Bob Ewell shouted, “[Y]ou goddamn whore, I'll kill ya” (p. 206). Seizing the opportunity, Tom ran, not out of guilt, but because he was scared and had no choice.

Tom did not claim that Mayella was lying, but only that she was “mistaken in her mind” (p. 210). He never had his eye on her, never harmed her, and certainly never raped her. It was Tom who resisted Mayella's advances (p. 207).


No one really believes Mayella. Not Atticus, and certainly not Scout. Not Judge Taylor, not Sheriff Heck Tate, and not even Mr. Gilmer, the county attorney whom Scout observes to have been “prosecuting almost reluctantly” (p. 201). Nor does it seem that the jury believed Mayella, since it took them a full two hours to bring the trial to its foreordained conclusion. That, of course, is the point of the book. Mayella is a sexually frustrated, love-starved aggressor, who lies her way out of a dilemma and participates in a judicial lynching in order to avoid revealing the truth.

But that is not the way Mayella tells it. She says she was raped. She says that she just offered Tom Robinson a nickel to “bust up” a piece of furniture. She went into the house for the money and “'fore I knew it he was on me. Just run up behind me, he did. He got me round the neck, cussin' me an' sayin' dirt—I fought'n'hollered, but he had me round the neck. He hit me agin an' agin” (p. 192).

Mayella fought tooth and nail, but she failed:

I don't remember too good, but next thing I knew Papa was in the room a'standin' over me hollerin' who done it, who done it? Then I sorta fainted an' the next thing I knew Mr. Tate was pullin' me up offa the floor and leadin' me to the water bucket.

[p. 192]

She was positive that Tom had taken “full advantage” of her. “He done what he was after” (p. 192).

Mayella sparred with Atticus on cross examination. She denied his assertion that the beating was administered by her father. She denied that she had been the one to approach Tom. She insisted that she had never before asked Tom inside the fence. As to Atticus's main theory, that Tom's crippled left arm made him incapable of the crime she had described, Mayella raged “I don't know how he done it, but he done it—I said it all happened so fast I—” (p. 198). She continued:

I got somethin' to say an' then I ain't gonna say no more. That nigger yonder took advantage of me an' if you fine fancy gentlemen don't wanta do nothin' about it then you're all yellow stinkin' cowards, stinkin' cowards, the lot of you. Your fancy airs don't come to nothin'—your ma'amin' and Miss Mayellerin' don't come to nothin', Mr. Finch.

[p. 200]

Whatever the truth of the rape charge, Mayella clearly understood that everyone else in the courtroom considered her trash, hardly worth protecting. Throughout her testimony, as though she herself was on trial, she was nervous and jumpy. She cried repeatedly and she reacted with “terror and fury” (p. 200). That is also part of her story.


The purpose of a trial is to resolve competing factual narratives.10 Mayella (and her father) claimed that she had been raped by Tom Robinson. Tom denied the crime. Atticus was assigned to represent Tom. The stage was set for a trial.

In the mid-1930s (when the events took place) as in the early 1960s (when the book was published), one standard response to a rape charge was to plead consent. It is no surprise, then, that Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson on that very ground; that is how rape prosecutions were defeated in those days.

Of course, Atticus did not merely raise consent. Rather, he used a specific form of the defense that can be particularly offensive, in both senses of the word. Let's call it the “she wanted it” defense. Mayella didn't merely agree to a little romance with Tom, she was the intense aggressor. She schemed and plotted for “a slap year” to get the children out of the house on an opportune day. She jumped on Tom, wrapped her arms around him, demanded that he kiss her, and blocked the door with her body when he tried to leave.

So Atticus Finch told a trial story11 that was demeaning and stereotyped. True, he did it in a courteous and courtly manner, but Mayella easily realized what was being done to her. She and her family and her way of life were being placed on trial; she herself was being accused of a crime that could (and did) lead to a man's death. Did Atticus Finch have the right, or perhaps the duty, to treat Mayella in that fashion?

As a starting point, our evaluation of Atticus's conduct rests on an appraisal of Tom Robinson's guilt. There are three possibilities: (1) Tom Robinson was telling the truth, (2) Tom Robinson was lying, and (3) Atticus did not know and did not care about the truth of Tom Robinson's story.


Generations of readers (and moviegoers) have accepted Tom Robinson's account of how he befriended Mayella and was then betrayed by her. Given what we know of then-contemporary Southern mores and justice, his narrative is credible and compelling. And should there be any doubt, the physical evidence supports his innocence.

First, there was no medical examination of Mayella and, therefore, no physical evidence that a rape had occurred. Atticus refers to this as “lack of corroboration” (p. 232). More importantly, Mayella's blackened right eye, bruises, and other injuries were inconsistent with Tom's crippled left arm. All of this gives credence to Tom's story. And if Tom was truthful, then Atticus simply had no choice but to attack Mayella as he did. Advocacy means nothing if it doesn't mean bringing out the truth, no matter how painful, on behalf of the innocent.

To Atticus's credit, he was generally polite to a young woman who was clearly despised by virtually everyone else in the courtroom. But politeness can be intimidating in its own way, as it was to Mayella. And Atticus left no doubt that he intended to do his job. “Miss Mayella,” he began his cross examination, “I won't try to scare you for a while, not yet” (p. 193).

So here we have Atticus Finch, seasoned courtroom warrior, marshaling all of his considerable skills and talents on behalf of his innocent client. This is the Atticus Finch of legend, beyond reproach or even criticism.


The story becomes substantially more confusing if we consider the possibility that Tom Robinson may have been lying about some or all of his contact with Mayella Ewell. To be sure, the narrator makes it clear that she believes Tom, and that we should believe him too. Nor do I mean to suggest that I reject his innocence.

On the other hand, Scout merely told the story and Harper Lee merely wrote the book. Neither one can control our interpretation of the finished text. A responsible reading of the novel ought to consider the possibility that Scout, worshipfully devoted to her father, might have misapprehended either the facts or the credibility of the witnesses.12 And, as it turns out, there is much in the text that supports Mayella's story.

Of course, the primary evidence against Tom came from Mayella and Bob Ewell. The father and daughter were reasonably consistent in their accounts of the alleged rape, and neither one could be made to retract anything on cross-examination. They were steadfast; Mayella's “eye was blacked and she was mighty beat up” (p. 187).

Atticus's effective cross-examinations established that Mayella's right eye was injured and that her father, Bob, was left-handed, while Tom had no use of his left arm. This is meant to establish that Tom could not have administered the beating, since it must have come from the left side. But it does not strain credulity to conclude that he could have used his right hand to hit her right eye—either as her head was turned or perhaps with a backward slapping motion. Tom was a physical laborer, a powerful man who admitted that even with his damaged arm he was “strong enough to choke the breath out of a woman and sling her to the floor” (p. 209). For Mayella, the shock of being attacked might make it difficult for her to fight back effectively, or to remember the precise timing of the blows.13

There are other gaps in Tom's defense as well. He claimed that Mayella set out to seduce him, saving scarce nickels for “a slap year” so that she could send her siblings into town for ice cream. That story has its problems. It has Mayella lying in wait for an entire year, and then sending the children into town without even knowing whether Tom would show up on that particular day. Though Tom had to pass the Ewell cabin on his way to work for Link Deas, the attack occurred in November when there was no cotton to be picked. Tom still worked “pretty steady” for Mr. Deas in the fall and wintertime, but apparently not every day.

Tom's narrative requires us to believe that Mayella was cunning and predatory enough to hatch her plan, but she then doled out her year-long hoard of nickels without even knowing whether Tom would show up that day. If Mayella were truly as desperate as she is painted by Tom (and Scout), wouldn't she have made certain that her nickels would really be put to their intended use?14

Rape is often described as a crime of opportunism. A counter-narrative, then, would be that Mayella had saved her nickels for no other reason than to give her siblings an otherwise unobtainable treat. Tom, as Mayella describes it, was in fact asked to help with some chores in the yard. Learning of the children's absence, he attacked her.15

Let me be clear that I do not sponsor this version; I am not arguing that Tom Robinson was a rapist. My point, however, is that Mayella's story is also coherent and supported by the facts adduced at trial. Atticus Finch undermined her credibility, but he did not, Scout's prejudices aside, prove Mayella to be a liar. As a simple matter of narrative interpretation, it is possible that Mayella was basically telling the truth.

Once we consider the possibility of Tom's guilt, and that Atticus might have known about it, we have to take a very different view of the cross-examination of Mayella Ewell. Was it ethical, could it still be admirable, for Atticus to treat Mayella as he did? Let us not pull any punches. Atticus tortured Mayella. He held her up as a sexual aggressor at a time when such conduct was absolutely dishonorable and disgraceful. Already a near outcast, Atticus ensured that Mayella could have no hope whatsoever of any role in polite society.

The “she wanted it” defense in this case was particularly harsh. Here is what it said about Mayella: She was so starved for sex that she spent an entire year scheming for a way to make it happen. She was desperate for a man, any man. She repeatedly grabbed at Tom and wouldn't let him go, barring the door when he respectfully tried to disentangle himself. And in case Mayella had any dignity left after all that, it had to be insinuated that she had sex with her father.16

In short, the defense of Tom Robinson employed most, if not all, of the well-worn negative conventions historically used to debase and discourage rape victims. One writer calls these “the most insulting stereotypes of women victims,”17 amounting to a judicial “requirement of humiliation.”18

Does our view of Atticus change if it turns out that he dragged Mayella through the mud for the sole purpose of freeing the guilty?


The third possibility, in reality perhaps the most likely one, is that Atticus did not care about the relative truth of the charge and defense. He was appointed by the court to defend Tom Robinson, an obligation that he could not ethically decline or shirk. Atticus Finch was neither a firebrand nor a reformer. He had spent his career hoping to avoid a case like Tom's,19 but having been given one, he was determined to do his best for his client. Not every Maycomb lawyer would have done as much.20

In the classic formulation, every person accused of a crime is entitled to a vigorous defense. Guilt or innocence do not figure into the equation; that is for the jury to decide, not the attorney. It is not uncommon for lawyers to avoid learning, or forming strong convictions, about their clients' guilt, since zealous advocacy is required in either case.21

Agnostic lawyers take their clients as they find them, assigning to themselves the task of assembling the most persuasive possible defense supported by the facts of the case. Their goal is to create a reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror, not to prove the innocence of the client. Innocence is irrelevant. Doubt is all that matters.

Doubt, in turn, may be found only in the mind of the beholder. A case is not tried in the abstract, but rather to a very specific audience. It is the lawyer's job—the advocate's duty—to identify and address the sensibilities, predispositions, insecurities, and thought patterns of the jury. Following this model, Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson neither in the name of truth nor in disregard of it. He defended Tom Robinson in a way that he hoped might work.22


Modern feminist writers have shed much light on the “classic” trial of rape cases, exposing the manner in which accepted defenses were built upon layers of myth, prejudice, and oppression of women. In the once venerated but now much discredited words of English Chief Justice Lord Matthew Hale, rape was considered a charge “easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho' never so innocent.”23

The general suspicion of rape victims was at times so great as to cause Dean John Henry Wigmore, the great expositor of the common law of evidence, to call for mandatory psychiatric evaluation before a complainant's testimony could be heard by a jury. “[Rape complainants'] psychic complexes are multifarious, distorted partly by inherent defects, partly by diseased derangements or abnormal instincts, partly by bad social environment, partly by temporary physiological or emotional conditions.”24

There seems little doubt that Atticus Finch shared this mistrust of women, or at least those who claimed to have been sexually assaulted. He twice told the jury that Mayella's testimony was uncorroborated. Later, after the verdict, he told his children that he had “deep misgivings when the state asked for and the jury gave a death penalty on purely circumstantial evidence,” adding that there should have been “one or two eyewitnesses” (p. 232). Of course, Mayella's testimony was corroborated and there were two eye-witnesses. But in Atticus Finch's view, Mayella and Bob Ewell were not simply inadequate witnesses; they apparently did not count at all.

As to the jury, Atticus understood that “people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box” (p. 233). He had a low opinion of the veniremen, who “all come from out in the woods.” He knew that the case had to be pitched to their prejudices, understanding that “we generally get the juries we deserve” (p. 234). Perhaps Atticus thought he was speaking only of race, but can there be any doubt that the all male jury was prejudiced against women as well? Atticus could not help smiling when he explained to Scout why Alabama prohibited women from serving on juries. “‘I guess it's to protect our frail ladies from sordid cases like Tom's. Besides,’ Atticus grinned, ‘I doubt if we'd ever get a complete case tried—the ladies'd be interrupting to ask questions.’”25

It was against this backdrop of wariness and condescension that Atticus Finch, rightly or wrongly, designed his defense to exploit a virtual catalog of misconceptions and fallacies about rape, each one calculated to heighten mistrust of the female complainant.26


It appears to be an age-old male fantasy that women dream about rape. According to the defense, Mayella obsessed over Tom for a “slap year,” saving scarce money and contriving to have her siblings away so that she could lure him into an assignation. With no provocation or encouragement, she seems to have deluded herself into believing that her passion might be reciprocated. Perhaps she even succeeded in bringing herself to believe that she had been raped. Since it was widely held that “stories of rape are frequently lies or fantasies,”27 it would seem natural to paint Mayella as suffering from one of the “psychic complexes” of “errant young girls,”28 which can result in deliberately false charges born of “sexual neurosis.”29 After all, as every court knows, “[p]sychiatric experience tells us that [sexual] fantasies are far from uncommon.”30


Another sad stereotype is that of the spurned woman who cries rape in revenge. Tom, though kind to Mayella when she needed help around the house, resisted her sexual advances and refused to fulfill her physical needs. In return, she branded him a rapist and “she looked at him as if he were dirt beneath her feet” (p. 204). In the 1950s, no less an authority than the Model Penal Code endorsed the concept that women lodged false rape charges out of anger or hostility, citing an ostensibly well-founded fear that “bitterness at a relationship gone sour might convert a willing participant in sexual relations into a vindictive complainant.”31


It seems hardly to need saying that women lie out of shame. Atticus told the jury that Mayella lied “in an effort to get rid of her own guilt … because it was guilt that motivated her. … She must destroy the evidence of her offense” (p. 216). This is a theme that is played over and over in the literature on rape. An article in the Stanford Law Review once referred to this alleged phenomenon as motivated by “moralistic afterthoughts.”32 One court believed that “sexual cases are particularly subject to the danger of deliberately false charges … simply [because of] a girl's refusal to admit that she consented to an act of which she is now ashamed.”33 To another court, it was obvious that “even young girls, like older females, sometimes concoct an untruthful story to conceal a lapse from virtue.”34


In the lexicon of rape defense, sexuality is closely related to shame and no less likely to cause a woman to lie about being the victim of a crime. Since women can barely control, and sometimes cannot even understand, their desires, they proceed to victimize the men whom they ensnare. As Atticus explained it,

She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it. … She was white, and she tempted a Negro. … No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards.

[p. 216]

According to a Note in the Yale Law Journal, “[a] woman's need for sexual satisfaction may lead to the unconscious desire for forceful penetration, the coercion serving neatly to avoid the guilt feelings which might arise after willing participation.”35 Not to be outdone, the Stanford Law Review wrote that “[i]t is always difficult in rape cases to determine whether the female really meant ‘no.’ … [A] woman may note a man's brutal nature and be attracted to him rather than repulsed.”36


Women may be so confused about sex that they do not even understand what they themselves have done. Mayella, who lived among pigs, whose family was unwashed and illiterate, was pitiable in her “cruel poverty and ignorance” (p. 216). And so the cross-examination proceeded to show her dazed unreliability. She could not keep her story straight and she could not provide a blow-by-blow description: “You're becoming suddenly clear on this point. A while ago you couldn't remember too well, could you? … Why don't you tell the truth, child?” (pp. 198, 199). To one court, a victim's somewhat “inconsistent and confused” inability to recount a precise chronology of a gang rape was considered reason enough to reverse a conviction, though the defense version was that she had pushed a dirty stick into her own vagina until her cervix bled.37 Ignorance and confusion are the rapist's friend. Professor Ann Althouse reports that a pornographic magazine once advised its readers that a man “doesn't have to worry if he rapes a retarded girl because nobody will believe the testimony of a ‘scrunch face.’”38

The advocate's job is to provide the jury with reasons for acquittal. Atticus Finch gave his jury at least five separate justifications for believing that Mayella “wanted it.” She lied, he told them, perhaps in fantasy, or out of spite, or in shame, or as a result of sexual frustration, or maybe just because she was confused.

It would be easy to dismiss the defense strategy as archaic or outdated. As a man of his times, confronting a jury even less enlightened than most, what choice did Atticus Finch have other than to plead the consent defense as he did? But the “she wanted it” defense is hardly an anachronism. It continues to this day in cases involving sexual assault. A cursory sample of recent newspaper stories reveals that the defense is alive and enticing.

In one case, a young woman, described as “mildly retarded,” was sexually penetrated with a baseball bat and a broom handle while thirteen teenage boys watched or participated. The defense lawyers argued that the victim was “an oversexed aggressor who welcomed and enjoyed all the sexual activities.”39 In the rape prosecution of a drill sergeant at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, the defense asserted that the defendant's accusers were “habitual liars who openly yearned to have intimate relations with him.”40 In another Army sexual harassment case, defense counsel asked one of the complainants whether “she offered to have an abortion” to curry favor with the defendant;41 another complainant was “depicted as someone who thought her husband was a wimp, who might have been interested in other men and who told coarse sex-oriented jokes to male co-workers.”42 In another widely publicized rape case, the victim identified herself and held a press conference because she felt sullied by the defense lawyer,

who accused her of using drugs that night and of agreeing to have sex with Mr. Kelly. [The lawyer] said she had concocted a tale of rape out of shame of losing her virginity in the back of a Jeep to an 18-year-old she had just met, a youth with whom she would have no future because he had a girlfriend.43

The above examples are from a few high-profile cases, the ones that were reported in the press during the weeks prior to this writing. It is a virtual certainty that there were many more cases—dozens, perhaps hundreds—that saw the same defenses used in similar, if not more aggravated, circumstances.

The “she wanted it” defense, in its several iterations, is ultimately an advocacy tool. It is a rhetorical device utilized in the hope that it will prevail. The lawyers who employ the defense are not pro-rape zealots. They are, instead, amoral technicians, doing their best to assemble and present the arguments and pleas most likely to result in an acquittal.

This does not soften the impact of the defense on the victims, however, nor does it justify the humiliating “second rape,” the tradition of character assassination,44 that seems to be the stock in trade of so many defense lawyers.


To Kill a Mockingbird was intended, above all, to be a story about race and racial oppression. In the America of 1960, the topic was daring and the points were probably best driven home through the use of didactic characters, almost stick-figures. Atticus is good and noble, Tom guiltless and pure of heart, Mayella low-born and conniving. We know, of course, what Harper Lee intended, and the flaws in Tom's defense are really just weaknesses in the author's storytelling. But the flaws go unnoticed because the readers, earnestly complicit in the story, are anxious for Tom's vindication.45

If Atticus Finch accurately gauged the jury that he faced, so too did Harper Lee understand hers. For Tom to be the most believable, Mayella must be the most disgraceful. We can no doubt all agree that in the fight against racism, a little class and gender bias can be an effective literary device. In formula fiction, the job of means is to bring us steadily to the end.

But how does that work in real life? When would a real Atticus Finch be justified in eviscerating a real Mayella Ewell in order to defend a real Tom Robinson? Always?46 Never?47 It depends?48 The absolute positions have their adherents, and the arguments are compelling on both sides. But this is not the place to rehearse at length the considerable literature criticizing and defending the adversary system.

Suffice it to say that adversary system purists cannot allow themselves to care about the defendant's innocence or guilt, insisting instead on counsel's utmost efforts to obtain an acquittal in either circumstance. We have all heard it said that,

an advocate, in the discharge of his duty, knows but one person in all the world, and that person is his client. To save that client by all means and expedients, and at all hazards and costs to other persons … is his first and only duty; and in performing this duty he must not regard the alarm, the torments, the destruction which he may bring upon others.49

Other writers, perhaps we should call them communitarians or relationalists, are more distressed by the dangers that the adversary system poses to “human or emotional equities.”50 In this regard, they are concerned that full-bore advocacy, for either party, may do irreparable harm to all involved.

For the traditionalists, then, the “she wanted it” defense would always be permissible (and perhaps even required), so long as it could be raised within the applicable rules of evidence. Among postmodernists, or certain of them, the defense would always be suspect, since it represents an assault on human dignity. I would venture, however, that most lawyers (and most observers of lawyers) would try to steer a middle ground, giving restrained approval for such a defense when counsel was convinced of its truth, yet denouncing it if used simply as a ploy.

Consider another cross examination from another famous rape trial. On March 25, 1931, nine young African-American men were arrested in Paint Rock, Alabama, and charged with the forcible rape of two white women. The alleged crime was said to have occurred on a moving train. It was brought to the attention of the authorities by a number of white youths who had been thrown off that same train by several of the eventual defendants. The matter was brought to trial in Scottsboro, Alabama, and it therefore became known as the Scottsboro Case.51

The initial trial of the case was held only twelve days after the arrests. The entire county bar was appointed to represent the defendants, which, predictably, amounted to no defense at all. Eight of the nine defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death.52 This outrage soon made the Scottsboro Case a national cause célèbre, bringing the entire issue of lynch law and racial justice into the international spotlight.53 One thing was clear: the Scottsboro boys, as they were then called, were plainly innocent, the targets of a racially motivated frame-up.54

Once the original convictions were vacated by the Supreme Court,55 Samuel Leibowitz, one of the foremost trial lawyers in America, arrived from New York to lead the defense. His position was simple. There had been no rape. The two women brought the false charges in order to cover up their own misconduct on the train.56

The defense did not stop there, however. The alleged victims, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, were portrayed as the last sort of people to be believed—promiscuous tramps at best, more likely prostitutes. Following the first convictions, affidavits were filed in court reporting that the two women were “notorious prostitutes and one of them … was arrested in a disorderly house in flagrante delicto with a colored man.”57 Another source claimed that “it made no difference whether she slept with a white man or a negro to her and they would both get drunk and they danced with and embraced colored men, and would hug them and kiss them.”58 One of the women was said to have asked to “meet and have intercourse with three men [on one] afternoon.” The other was described as “dressed in a lewd and almost nude fashion” and “drunk and in a fight with another woman and she had her clothes up around her body … and exposed her private parts [in] a drunken, disgraceful spectacle in the presence of a number of colored people.”59

At the first retrial, Victoria Price had to endure Samuel Leibowitz's ferocious cross examination, which was described by one reporter as “the shredding of her life with a patient scalpel.”60 Price had committed adultery and prostitution; she “treated” with black men; she traded “sex for liquor, favors, money, food, companionship, and love.”61 Following that tour-de-force, one headline read “Leibowitz Impales Price Girl as Prostitute.”62

The assault on Victoria Price63 was made all the more brutal by the fact that it was designed solely to degrade her, and not to develop any evidence actually relevant to the case. The defense, after all, was that the alleged intercourse had never occurred. There was no claim of consent, much less prostitution. Thus, the women's purported proclivities to have sex for hire and to “treat” with “negroes” had scant factual bearing on the case as it was tried.64

The Scottsboro case, then, sets the advocacy issue in severe relief. The cause was unquestionably just, yet the tactics were absolutely ruthless. Was it right or wrong to humiliate Victoria Price? Did Samuel Leibowitz have any choice, with the lives of his innocent clients on the line? Can any rule of legal ethics, however, depend upon the lawyer's faith in the particular client who, after all, must by law be presumed innocent in every case?65

The answer, I believe, is at once both stark and subtle. Advocates will use the tools they have. The adversary system all but ensures that every available argument will be employed.66 Until prohibited or restricted or discredited or declared out of bounds, every line of defense will be exploited. Facts, character, bias, innuendo—it is counsel's job to locate the fault lines in the prosecution's case. Faced with the alternative of a client's imprisonment or worse, the defense lawyer will fasten on vulnerability just as predictably as manure draws flies.

In practice, trial lawyers are the ultimate positivists; concerned mainly about what the law allows, they wonder little over the meaning of virtue. Thus, the “she wanted it” defense and others like it are sure to be bruited about whenever a case lacks an alibi.

To be sure, restraints on defense tactics in rape cases are justified, necessary, and long overdue, but they will have to come primarily from the courts and legislatures.67 Judges can prohibit cross examinations when they are irrelevant and degrading; legislatures can fill the gaps in current “rape shield” provisions. Trial counsel, no doubt, will proceed to work the interstices, and the process of reform will continue where it can. While it is not too much to ask lawyers to reform themselves, it is unrealistic to suppose that they will.68

For proof of this proposition, we need only return to Atticus Finch. As Scout's “love story” to her father makes plain, Atticus was a man of decency, honor, compassion, and courage.69 If he embraced the “she wanted it” defense, what ordinary lawyer could resist?70 Atticus was able to recognize and rise above the race prejudices of his time, but he was not able to comprehend the class and gender prejudices that suffused his work. As he understood his obligations to his client, he was compelled to treat Mayella Ewell as he did. His disregard of even the slightest possibility that she might have been telling the truth evidences an ethical—moral? social?—failing, though not a professional one. In Atticus Finch, whose compensating virtues are universally respected, it is a failing that generations of admiring readers have readily forgiven or overlooked.


Atticus Finch, a pillar of the Maycomb establishment, mistrusted Mayella Ewell and believed Tom Robinson. In the Alabama of 1935, or even 1960, that was no small achievement. The “code” of his time and place required that a white woman's word always be accepted and that a black man was never to be trusted. Atticus was not a civil rights crusader, but he was able to look past race in structuring his defense. He was even optimistic that the jurors might see the light and agree with him. Surely there had been other racial injustices in Maycomb, but we have no hint that any prior incident had ever stirred Atticus to action. He was, if anything, indulgent of the tendency to prejudice, and almost amused by the Ku Klux Klan.71 What was special about the prosecution of Tom Robinson? What was it that enabled Atticus Finch to take his worthy stand?

Perhaps the time was right. Perhaps, upon appointment by the court, his duty was simply clear. And perhaps the social structure of Maycomb actually depended upon the humiliation of Mayella Ewell, even while it required the conviction of Tom Robinson. The Ewells, after all, were a disappointment to their race. Social outcasts, they were drunk, illiterate, filthy, welfare-dependent, and worse. Tom Robinson, on the other hand, was a “respectable Negro,” polite, hard working, and not a trouble-maker. Did Tom ever once set foot on the Ewell property without an “express invitation from one of them?”

“No suh, Mr. Finch, I never did. I wouldn't do that, suh.”

[p. 204]

Scout believed Tom, because he fulfilled his assigned part in the social structure, as she well understood.

“He seemed to be a respectable Negro, and a respectable Negro would never go up into somebody's yard of his own volition.”

[p. 204]

Tom was so respectable, that he did not even attempt to shoulder his way past Mayella, desperate as he was to escape from his awful dilemma.

“Mr. Finch, I tried. I tried 'thout bein' ugly to her. I didn't wanta be ugly, I didn't wanta push her or nothin'.”

[p. 207]

To be sure, Tom's propriety was so well regarded in Maycomb that Mr. Link Deas, his employer, interrupted the trial to shout from the spectators' gallery.

“I just want the whole lot of you to know one thing right now. That boy's worked for me eight years an' I ain't had a speck o'trouble outa him. Not a speck.”

[p. 207]

In other words, Tom knew his place.72 He played his prescribed part, fitting into Maycomb society, presenting no challenge and no affront. He was the sort of “quiet, respectable, humble Negro” (p. 216) who would stand aside deferentially as white people passed.73

Mayella and her father, though, were just the opposite. They broke the mold, insulted the norms, violated the rules and the culture. They were the very contradiction of everything that the “fine folks” of Maycomb stood for. If Tom Robinson never caused a “speck o'trouble,” the Ewells were pure trouble.74

Can there be any doubt that this unexpected role reversal—the proper Negro versus the offensive whites—allowed Atticus Finch, and to a lesser extent even the sheriff (and perhaps even the judge and the prosecutor), to see class, perhaps for the first time, as a more salient characteristic than race? Of course, in the Alabama of 1935, race could not be dismissed. Innocent or guilty, Tom Robinson had to pay the price for allowing himself to get into an unforgivable predicament. But neither could class or gender be overlooked. As surely as Tom had to be convicted, Mayella Ewell, again, innocent or guilty, had to be disgraced.


Where does this leave us, and what do we think now of Atticus Finch? At the very least we must renew our respect for his skill as an advocate. It is a great accomplishment, of course, to compel a bigoted Alabama jury to hesitate before convicting an innocent black man. But it would take a monumental performance indeed to accomplish that same feat for a guilty defendant. On a purely technical level, it is safe to say that Atticus remains an icon, if not an idol.

The moral problem is more difficult, if not intractable. Whether Tom was innocent or guilty, Atticus no doubt fulfilled his obligations under the standard conception of professional ethics. But that only brings us directly to the hardest question of all: Is Atticus still a hero? Does his moral standing depend on Tom's innocence, or can we still idealize him if it turns out that Tom committed the crime? If Atticus knew, or ignored the possibility, of Tom's guilt, does that reduce him in our eyes to a talented, but, shall we say, morally neutral actor?

I confess that, as of this writing, I have not been able to arrive at a satisfactory answer. I am able to see the social value to vigorous defense and I can appreciate the principle that all—even the guilty and especially the despised—must be defended. But the willingness to rely upon cruel stereotypes, to play the “gender card,” should be criticized not applauded.

Of course, a law review article must reach a conclusion (or at least the semblance of one). I am therefore grateful to the editors of the Michigan Law Review for soliciting the comments that follow. Lacking resolution from me, the editors have turned to a panel of experts for their wisdom on the question that I cannot manage to resolve unaided. Readers are urged to consider the insights of Ann Althouse, Robert E. Atkinson, Jr., Burnele V. Powell, William H. Simon, and Randolph N. Stone and decide for themselves whether Atticus Finch is a paragon of honor or an especially slick hired gun.


  1. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). A word about footnotes: This review discusses one of the most widely read novels in all of American literature, having sold more than 10,000,000 copies worldwide. See Best Sellers: List of World's Best Selling Books, Daily Mirror, June 12, 1995, at 7. I assume that the outline of the story is well known. Consequently, I typically cite to the book only when quoting directly from the text and not when paraphrasing or engaging in general exposition. All references are to the First Edition (J. B. Lippincott, 1960).

  2. To Professor Thomas Shaffer, for example, Atticus Finch was “a truthful person. He was truthful within his community and, more importantly, he was truthful to himself.” Thomas L. Shaffer, On Lying for Clients, 71 Notre Dame L. Rev. 195, 211 (1996); see also Thomas L. Shaffer, The Moral Theology of Atticus Finch, 42 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 181, 188 (1981) (to the same effect). But see Monroe H. Freedman, Atticus Finch—Right and Wrong, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 473, 475-77 (1994) (arguing that Atticus was not so truthful after all). As to whether Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson was actually “true,” see infra section III.

  3. Monroe Freedman argues convincingly that Atticus did not risk his true social standing by taking up the defense of Tom Robinson. Indeed, the “better folks” in Maycomb silently supported his efforts. See Freedman, supra note 2, at 480-81. Freedman also points out that Atticus seemed to be blithely disinterested in the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. See id. at 473-75. But that's another story.

  4. One juror, it seems, actually voted for acquittal on the first ballot. See p. 235.

  5. See, e.g., Timothy Hoff, Influences on Harper Lee: An Introduction to the Symposium, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 389, 398-99 (1994) (stating that Atticus is too good to be true); Teresa Godwin Phelps, The Margins of Maycomb: A Rereading of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 511, 511 (1994) (stating that Atticus is revered as the model lawyer); Pierre Schlag, Normative and Nowhere to Go, 43 Stan. L. Rev. 167, 189 (1990) (stating that Atticus Finch is a fantasy role model for the legal academy); David B. Wilkins, Race, Ethics, and the First Amendment: Should a Black Lawyer Represent the Ku Klux Klan?, 63 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 1030, 1037 (1995) (stating that Atticus Finch is celebrated in the professional lore).

  6. Both Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr and President Clinton's personal attorney, David Kendall, have invoked Atticus Finch to justify their tactics in the contentious investigation. See David E. Kendall, To Distort a Mockingbird, N.Y. Times, June 3, 1998, at A25.

  7. Not to mention the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and several Academy Awards in 1962. For details, see Hoff, supra note 5, at 389-90. Most recently, the cinema version of To Kill a Mockingbird was voted number 34 on the American Film Institute's survey of the 100 best American movies of all time. See Voters Pick the 100 Best American Movies, N.Y. Times, June 17, 1998, at E3.

  8. See Hoff, supra note 5, at 392; see also Sharon Bond, “To Kill a Mockingbird” Author Holds to Her Long Literary Silence, Dallas Morning News, Sept. 24, 1995, at F6.

  9. P. 204. “[W]hite people wouldn't have anything to do with her because she lived among pigs; Negroes wouldn't have anything to do with her because she was white.” Id.

  10. See Steven Lubet, Modern Trial Advocacy 1 (2d ed. 1997).

  11. See id. at 4-8.

  12. Texts are always open to interpretation, but even more so in the case of a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird, which lacks an omniscient narrator and is recounted entirely from the perspective of a seven-year-old child.

  13. There is yet another explanation for Mayella's injuries, one that shows the Ewells to be hiding something but that does not absolve Tom Robinson. Isn't it possible that Tom indeed raped Mayella, and that Bob Ewell beat up his daughter after discovering the rape? Rape victims are regularly blamed for what happened to them. It is easily imaginable that Bob Ewell, living in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, might have taken out his anger on the victim of the crime. So the fact that Mayella protected her father does not mean that she lied about being raped.

  14. Even if Mayella had seen Tom going to work at Mr. Deas's place that morning, she had no way of knowing when he would leave work for the afternoon at a time of the year when work was irregular. And though she managed to send her siblings off for ice cream, she obviously had no way of knowing, and could not control, when her father would return.

  15. Tom denied having sex with Mayella, but recall that Tom testified to Bob Ewell's words upon entering the cabin: “[Y]ou goddamn whore, I'll kill ya.” P. 206. What would cause Bob to react that way if all he had seen was Tom trying to push his way past Mayella? Wouldn't the scene, as Tom depicted it, be more likely to cause Bob Ewell to be enraged at the intruder? On the other hand, if Bob really did see Tom “ruttin' on my Mayella,” he could easily have reacted with anger and fury at his daughter.

    And we must also ask why Mayella would go so far as to claim having been raped. Given the events as Tom gave them, a charge of attempted rape would obviously have served her purposes just as well, and without imposing upon her the stigma of a rape victim. Why would Mayella increase the import of her lie when the only result would be to make herself even more of a pariah in Maycomb? See James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro 19 (1994) (quoting the statement of alleged rape victim, a white woman: “Those Negroes have ruined me and Ruby forever”); Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men 66 (1997) (noting that white woman's claim of rape by black man led to her “maligning and ostracizing” by other whites).

  16. “She says she never kissed a grown man before an' she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don't count.” P. 206. In Mayella's case, the explosive charge of incest seemed to evoke no outrage. Contrast the case of Richard Allen Davis, convicted in 1996 for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a 12-year-old girl. See Elaine Lafferty, Final Outrage, Time, Oct. 7, 1996, at 64. At his sentencing, in an effort to save himself from execution, Davis testified that he had refrained from raping the child because she begged him, “Just don't do me like my Dad.” Id. His slander of the victim and her family did not succeed. Judge Thomas C. Hastings said that Davis's defiant statement made it “very easy” to sentence him to death. See id. Moreover, incest victims tend to be characterized by fear and mistrust, not by aggressive promiscuity. Carol Lynn Mithers, Incest and the Law, N.Y. Times, Oct. 21, 1990, (Magazine), at 44; Jane Cornman, Female Adolescent Response to Childhood Sexual Abuse, Journal of Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, Apr. 1997, at 17.

  17. Susan Estrich, Real Rape 56 (1987).

  18. Id. at 53.

  19. See p. 97. For a further discussion of Atticus's pro bono practice, see Freedman, supra note 2, at 480.

  20. Atticus's plans were discussed on the eve of trial by a group of court-house hangerson:

    “Lemme tell you somethin' now, Billy,” [one] said, “you know the court appointed him to defend this nigger.”

    “Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That's what I don't like about it.”

    P. 174.

  21. Many lawyers and advocacy teachers, myself included, take the view that a lawyer should insist that clients tell counsel all about the events of the charged crime. Full disclosure is necessary to an adequate defense. See Monroe H. Freedman, Lawyers' Ethics in an Adversary System 61-69 (1975); Monroe H. Freedman, Understanding Lawyers' Ethics 151-52 (1990) [hereinafter Freedman, Understanding]; Lubet, supra note 10, at 6.

  22. Atticus no doubt was aware that his southern, Christian, Bible-reading jurors would be familiar with the basis for his defense. It parallels the biblical tale of Potiphar's wife. As the jurors surely knew, she attempted to seduce Joseph, who refused her advances. She spitefully accused him of rape, which led to his imprisonment by Pharaoh. See Genesis 39:7-20.

  23. 1 Matthew Hale, The History of the Pleas of the Crown *635, quoted in Ronet Bachman & Raymond Paternoster, A Contemporary Look at the Effects of Rape Law Reform: How Far Have We Really Come?, 84 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 554, 558 (1993).

  24. 3A John Henry Wigmore, Evidence in Trials at Common Law § 924a (James H. Chadbourn rev. ed., 1970), quoted in Estrich, supra note 17, at 48.

  25. P. 234. Questions indeed!

  26. See generally Morrison Torrey, When Will We Be Believed? Rape Myths and the Idea of a Fair Trial in Rape Prosecutions, 24 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1013 (1991).

  27. Note, Corroborating Charges of Rape, 67 Colum. L. Rev. 1137, 1138 (1967), quoted in Estrich, supra note 17, at 43.

  28. State v. Anderson, 137 N.W.2d 781, 783 (Minn. 1965); see also State v. Wulff, 260 N.W. 515, 516 (Minn. 1935). The Wulff case, it may be noted, was decided in 1935, the very year in which To Kill a Mockingbird was set.

  29. Anderson, 137 N.W.2d at 783 n.2 (quoting Glanville Williams, Corroboration—Sexual Cases, 1962 Crim. L. Rev. 662, 662).

  30. People v. Scholl, 37 Cal. Rptr. 475, 478 (Ct. App. 1964), quoted in Ann Althouse, The Lying Woman, The Devious Prostitute, and Other Stories from the Evidence Casebook, 88 Nw. U. L. Rev. 914, 955 (1994).

  31. Model Penal Code and Commentaries § 213.6 cmt. 5 (1980), quoted in Estrich, supra note 17, at 54.

  32. Note, The Resistance Standard in Rape Legislation, 18 Stan. L. Rev. 680, 685 (1966), quoted in Estrich, supra note 17, at 38.

  33. Anderson, 137 N.W.2d at 783 n.2 (quoting Glanville Williams, Corroboration—Sexual Cases, 1962 Crim. L. Rev. 662, 662).

  34. State v. Connelley, 59 N.W. 479, 481 (1894).

  35. Comment, Forcible and Statutory Rape: An Exploration of the Operation and Objectives of the Consent Standard, 62 Yale L.J. 55, 67 (1952).

  36. Note, The Resistance Standard in Rape Legislation, 18 Stan. L. Rev. 680, 682 (1966) (quoting Ralph Slovenko, A Panoramic Overview: Sexual Behavior and the Law, in Sexual Behavior and the Law 5, 51, 54 (Ralph Slovenko ed., 1965)).

  37. See Commonwealth v. Bohannon, 378 N.E.2d 987, 989 (Mass. 1978), cited in Althouse, supra note 30, at 917, 963-65.

  38. Althouse, supra note 30, at 967 n.267 (citing Barry W. Lynn, ‘Civil Rights’ Ordinances and the Attorney General's Commission: New Developments in Pornography Regulation, 21 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 27, 89 n.205 (1986) (quoting from an unnamed publication)).

  39. Robert Hanley, 3 Men are Jailed in Glen Ridge Sexual Assault Case, N.Y. Times, July 1, 1997, at B4.

  40. See Neil A. Lewis, Sergeant's Lawyers Start Case by Accusing 2 of His Accusers, N.Y. Times, Apr. 22, 1997, at A12.

  41. See Elaine Sciolino, Accuser of Army's Senior Soldier Says He Should Face More Serious Charges, N.Y. Times, June 27, 1997, at A15.

  42. Neil A. Lewis, Accuser Is Criticized in Army Sex Case, N.Y. Times, July 2, 1997, at A18.

  43. Monte Williams, Victim of Rape Goes Public After 11 Years of Nightmares, N.Y. Times, June 20, 1997, at A1.

  44. See Althouse, supra note 30, at 949, 966; see also Gregory Matoesian, Reproducing Rape: Domination Through Talk in the Courtroom (1993) (discussing the role of language in transforming a woman's experience of rape into consensual sex at trial); Torrey, supra note 26, at 1056.

  45. I am grateful to Ann Althouse for this insight.

  46. Professor Monroe Freedman writes, “the imperatives of the adversary system properly require that every available argument be exploited by the criminal defense lawyer, even if he knows the client is guilty.” Letter from Monroe Freedman (July 20, 1997) (on file with author).

  47. Professor Dorothy Roberts writes, “[w]e shouldn't use sexist, racist, or classist myths to defend innocent clients, either.” Letter from Dorothy Roberts (Sept. 10, 1997) (on file with author).

  48. Professor Mary Becker writes, “[h]ow could torturing Mayella possibly be justified morally if she is telling the truth, regardless of legal ethics?” Letter from Mary Becker (July 24, 1997) (on file with author).

  49. Trial of Queen Caroline 8 (1821), quoted in Freedman, Understanding, supra note 21, at 65-66.

  50. See Carrie Menkel-Meadow, The Trouble with the Adversary System in a Postmodern, Multicultural World, 38 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 5, 6-7 (1996).

  51. See Goodman, supra note 15.

  52. The procedural history of the case is complex, involving seven separate retrials and two important decisions by the United States Supreme Court. See Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932) (requiring meaningful access to counsel in capital cases); Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587 (1935) (prohibiting systematic exclusion of minorities from jury rolls).

  53. The NAACP and the International Labor Defense (a Communist Party affiliate) vied for control of the defense of the case, in which they were supported by the great weight of public opinion, at least in the North.

  54. One of the alleged victims, Ruby Bates, subsequently recanted the charges. She testified for the defense at several of the retrials and toured the country raising support and funds for the defendants. Though it took over 40 years, even the State of Alabama eventually acknowledged the innocence of the Scottsboro defendants when Clarence Norris, the last survivor among them, was pardoned in 1976 on the basis of “innocence.” That decree, signed by then-Governor George Wallace, marked the first time in its history that Alabama conferred a pardon on the basis of innocence rather than forgiveness. See William K. Rashbaum, Funeral Held for Last ‘Scottsboro Boy,’ UPI, Jan. 31, 1989.

  55. See Powell, 287 U.S. at 45.

  56. The likelihood of a false rape charge was taken for granted at the time. Supporters of the Scottsboro defendants pointed out that this was “a common experience in the pathology of women,” and that “nine out of ten charges of rape are false and are due to a peculiar psychological condition of the woman.” These “rape fantasies” often misled even the most experienced judges, leading to the conviction of innocent men accused of rape by hysterical women. See Goodman, supra note 15, at 167-71, and sources cited therein.

  57. Id. at 184.

  58. Id.

  59. Id. at 184-86, and sources cited therein.

  60. Id. at 192.

  61. Id. at 192-93, and sources cited therein.

  62. Id. at 193 (quoting Mary H. Vorse, The Scottsboro Trial, New Republic, April 19, 1933, at 277).

  63. By the time Leibowitz entered the case Ruby Bates had become a defense witness.

  64. The tactic of character assault is venerable if not respectable, dating back at least a century prior to the events in To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1829, a white woman in Virginia named Amy Baker accused a slave of rape. A witness for the defendant, a white man, gave testimony that he himself had “been to the house of Mrs. Baker for the purpose of unlawful intercourse with females.” Another witness had “seen four negro men” at Amy's house on one occasion “and three negro men there at another time,” as though this were proof of low character. See Hodes, supra note 15, at 58.

  65. The argument is familiar, though that makes it no less meaningful. If vigorous advocacy is allowed only on behalf of clients who protest their innocence, the nearly certain result is that clients will refrain from making candid admissions to their lawyers. The consequence would not be fewer nasty cross examinations, but rather fewer pleas of guilty.

  66. Samuel Leibowitz no doubt saw himself as doing no more than fighting fire with fire. He had to endure the anti-Semitic taunts of the prosecution and the constant reference to the defendants as “niggers.” When Leibowitz objected, one prosecutor replied, “I ain't said nothin' wrong. Your Honor knows I always make the same speech in every nigger rape case.” The defense objection was not sustained. See Eric J. Sundquist, Blues for Atticus Finch, in The South as an American Problem 181 (Larry J. Griffin & Don H. Doyle eds., 1995).

  67. See, e.g., Fed. R. Evid. 412 (rape shield); Leigh Bienen, Rape Reform Legislation in the United States: A Look at Some Practical Effects, 8 Victimology 139 (1983) (reviewing protective measures enacted 1975-80); Dorothy Roberts, Rape, Violence, and Women's Autonomy, 69 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 359 (1993) (discussing efforts to reform rape law).

  68. Of course, it is not the defense alone that must be regulated. The abuses of prosecutors, though not the subject of this essay, have been well chronicled. See, e.g., Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) (using peremptory challenges to exclude jurors on the basis of race).

  69. “Atticus Finch has been studied by attorneys for the quality of his moral character, and his cinematic portrayal by Gregory Peck as a man of great tenderness and justice is so ingrained in American consciousness as to make him nearly impossible to imagine otherwise.” Sundquist, supra note 66, at 192.

  70. Nor could Atticus resist indulging in some creative exaggeration when he argued to the jury. During the cross examinations of Bob Ewell, Sheriff Tate, and Mayella Ewell, Atticus had taken pains to imply that Mayella's blackened right eye was injured by a left-handed blow. There was no evidence about the angle of impact that might have caused her other bruises. By final argument, however, Atticus had it that “Mayella Ewell was beaten savagely by someone who led almost exclusively with his left.” P. 216. Apparently, even the most honest lawyers can fall prey to the temptation of embellishment.

  71. See p. 157; Freedman, supra note 2, at 475-76 (observing that Atticus referred to the Klan as a “political” organization, Professor Freedman asks, “David Duke, can you use a campaign manager who looks like Gregory Peck?”).

  72. Indeed, it may be that Tom's death, ostensibly as he attempted to escape from prison, could have been avoided if only he had remained passive and stoic. Perhaps Atticus's appeal would have succeeded. See Phelps, supra note 5, at 527.

  73. See id. at 528 (describing how Maycomb's black citizens deferred to whites, even in their own church).

  74. Atticus defined the social structure for his children: “There's nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro's ignorance.” P. 233. Tom, ignorant but upright, merited Atticus's approval. Mayella, a low-grade white woman if ever there was one, brought down his contempt.

    Worthlessness seems to have been a genetic trait among the Ewells. Ten-year-old Burris Ewell, beginning first grade for at least the third time, succeeded in bringing tears to his teacher's eyes when he shouted “[a]in't no snot-nosed slut of a schoolteacher ever born c'n make me do nothin'!” P. 34.

I am grateful for helpful comments from Kathy Abrams, Frank Adams, Ann Althouse, Mary Becker, Monroe Freedman, Timothy Hoff, Wythe Holt, Jane Larson, Dorothy Roberts, and faculty workshop participants at the University of Alabama. Many thanks to Alex Rose, Northwestern University School of Law class of 1999, for thoughtful and creative research assistance.

Further Reading

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Baecker, Diann L. “Telling It in Black and White: The Importance of the Africanist Presence in To Kill a Mockingbird.Southern Quarterly 36, no. 3 (spring 1998): 124-32.

Provides critical discussion of the representation of African Americans in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Champion, Laurie. “‘When You Finally See Them’: The Unconquered Eye in To Kill a Mockingbird.Southern Quarterly 37, no. 2 (winter 1999): 127-36.

Provides an analysis of the symbolism of light and darkness in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Hovet, Theodore R., and Grace-Ann Hovet. “‘Fine Fancy Gentleman’ and ‘Yappy Folk’: Contending Voices in To Kill a Mockingbird.Southern Quarterly 40, no. 1 (fall 2001): 67-78.

Critical discussion of the use of regional dialect in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Johnson, Claude. “The Secret Courts of Men's Hearts: Code and Law in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.Studies in American Fiction 19, no. 2 (autumn 1991): 129-39.

Provides critical discussion of the theme of justice in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Johnson, Claudia Durst. “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Threatening Boundaries, New York: Twayne, 1994, 125 p.

Provides a general overview of To Kill a Mockingbird and its critical reception.

———, ed. Understanding “To Kill a Mockingbird”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994, 248 p.

Offers a variety of pedagogical approaches to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in the classroom.

Jones, Carolyn. “Atticus Finch and Mad Dog: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.Southern Quarterly 34, no. 4 (summer 1996): 53-63.

Offers critical discussion of the theme of morality in To Kill a Mockingbird.

O'Neill, Terry, ed. Readings on “To Kill a Mockingbird.” San Diego, Cal.: Greenhaven, 2000, 144 p.

A collection of critical essays by various authors on To Kill a Mockingbird.

Additional coverage of Lee's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 8; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 51, 128; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 12, 60; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 11; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults.

Ann Althouse (essay date May 1999)

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SOURCE: Althouse, Ann. “Reconstructing Atticus Finch? A Response to Professor Lubet.” Michigan Law Review 97, no. 6 (May 1999): 1363-69.

[In the following essay, Althouse responds to the essay “Reconstructing Atticus Finch,” by Steven Lubet. Althouse argues that Atticus is a model lawyer in the sense that he maintains the same high ethical standards in his personal life as he does in his capacity as a lawyer.]

“He's not an example, Dill. … He's the same in the courtroom as he is on the public streets.”1

In one of her childishly obtuse moments, Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, denies that her father Atticus Finch is any sort of proper example of how a lawyer ought to act when cross-examining a witness. The prosecutor's cross-examination of the accused Tom Robinson has moved her friend Dill to tears:

I couldn't stand … [t]hat old Mr. Gilmer doin' him thataway, talking so hateful to him—2

Scout, who has taken her friend out of the courtroom, explains:

Dill, that's his job. … He's supposed to act that way.3

Atticus, on the other hand, does not turn into a lawyer stereotype when he enters the courtroom. He faces the adversities and injustices of the courtroom with the same gentlemanly manner that he uses when interacting with the various characters that populate the charming but benighted town of Maycomb.

At this point in the story, Dolphus Raymond appears to reassure Dill:

I know what you mean, boy. … You aren't thin-hided, it just makes you sick doesn't it?4

Dolphus is a man reduced to feigning abject alcoholism as he stumbles through the town that cannot understand why he, a white man, “preferred the company of Negroes.”5 He comforts Dill with a drink from the Coca-Cola bottle that he carries around hidden in a paper bag. That is his solution, his way to get along in Maycomb, an alternative to saying “the hell with them.”6 The reader agrees with Dolphus and Dill: the spectacle in the courtroom does sicken. The bitter racism shown in the book might move us, like Dill, to tears. But neither Dolphus nor Dill emerges as a model. The many readers inspired by the power of To Kill a Mockingbird want to be Atticus.

Atticus shows us how to stay in the imperfect courtroom. He does not refuse to interact with the people of Maycomb, despite their shortcomings. He knows he cannot single handedly cure all of the ills he perceives, but he does not despair or become insensitive to these wrongs. Instead, he maintains one way of behaving, which he uses in all situations. He's the same in the courtroom as he is on the public streets. For those entering the legal profession, who commonly worry that they will lose themselves in an overbearing and tainted alien culture, Atticus is a model of integrity, showing us how to persevere day-to-day when our contributions may be only very modestly incremental.

It is this moderation and willingness to continue to work within the system, really living in the world he was born into, and not any high degree of legal skill, that makes Atticus a paragon. I suspect that many of those who revere Atticus remember him as a brave and idealistic man who took an unpopular case and stood up to the evils of his society, but the book does not depict him that way. Atticus takes the case Judge Taylor assigns him. He does his duty: “[S]imply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally.”7 If he refuses to continue his work in a consistent manner, despite this personal burden, he loses his place in the moral order: “I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you and Jem not to do something again.”8 Atticus does not make a special idealistic decision in this particular case. As a man of integrity, he cannot depart from his established way. This adherence to duty corresponds to his view of the law. His closing statement to the jury ends:

I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.9

Atticus deeply believes in the law and as he performs his duty, he patiently waits for the day when the others who work in the system will also perform their duty. Law is not a lofty institution, but a “working reality” that necessarily depends on the routine performance of duty by good people like Atticus and the lawyers he inspires.

Atticus accepts the Robinson case just as earlier in the book he accepts the job Sheriff Tate asks him to do: shoot a rabid dog. Indeed, his handling of the trial parallels the shooting of the rabid dog. Atticus possesses extraordinary skills—as a lawyer and as a marksman—but he does not seek occasions to display them or profit by them. The sheriff calls on Atticus when a dog must be taken down in one shot, and the judge comes to him when an inflammatory case needs a lawyer. A neighbor tries to explain the restraint of this man who had avoided using his shooting skills for thirty years:

“[H]e's civilized in his heart … I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn't shoot till he had to, and he had to today.”10

Far from a hired gun,11 either literally, with a rifle, or figuratively, as a lawyer, Atticus assiduously refrains from showing off his skills; he accepts his assignments through a sense of duty. He particularly dislikes the practice of criminal law and prefers a quiet office practice.12 When the rabid dog incident makes Scout want to brag to the other children about her father's dead aim, her brother Jem forbids it and proclaims “jubilantly”: “Atticus is a gentlemen, just like me.”

Does Atticus depart from his gentlemanly ways when he cross-examines Mayella? Mayella may be a pitiable creature—“the loneliest person in the world”13—but if she has accused an innocent man of a capital crime, she is the equivalent of the rabid dog. Now, perhaps, as Professor Lubet has described, she is not lying. Surely Atticus would have refrained from shooting the dog if he had not believed it was in fact rabid, despite the sheriff's bidding. One might say a lawyer must defend any client, but I do think Atticus forms the belief that Mayella is lying and that he must deploy his full powers in her case for this reason. By the end of the direct examination, Mayella has acquired an air of confidence “like a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tail.”14 She has become a vicious animal requiring the dead-aim shot. Atticus may feel sorry for the poor dog who has become infected with rabies, but that does not affect his duty to kill it: Mayella's testimony threatens to kill an innocent man, and his pity for her does not affect his duty to destroy her credibility. Perhaps this is what Atticus is thinking as he takes a long silent walk around the courtroom, “trying to come to a decision about something,”15 before he begins his cross-examination.

That Mayella's injuries were on her right side, that her father is left handed, and that Tom's left arm is so entirely useless it slips off the Bible as he is taking the oath, clearly establishes Harper Lee's overeagerness to assure us that Tom is innocent and to squelch any speculation to the contrary. (Professor Lubet breaks free of the author's firm hold.) The author's decision to forgo the usual subtleties of the novelist's art undermines attempts at assessing Atticus's legal skills. Indeed, Lee's cartoonishly overdone evidence generates its own difficulties: Tom's left arm is an entire foot shorter than his right arm and it hangs “dead at his side” and dangles a hand so shrivelled that Scout detects its inutility from the balcony, yet Atticus is able to trap both Bob Ewell and Mayella into testifying in a way that would require Tom to have an effective left arm, as if they had never laid eyes on him.16 Given this glaring lapse in the evidence, it is not surprising that Professor Lubet can pry a number of holes in the evidence and construct an interpretation that Tom is guilty, but I would still maintain that Atticus can be credited with an absolute belief that Tom is innocent and that readers entering Lee's simplified moral world are compelled to adopt this belief as well.

Distasteful as the “she wanted it” defense is as a general matter, I think Harper Lee has set up the evidence fairly clearly to support the conclusion that in this case, Mayella quite intentionally sought a sexual encounter with Tom. Mayella, we are told, was “the loneliest person in the world” because she did not fit anywhere in society (unlike Atticus, so firmly rooted at the very center of his society):

[W]hite people wouldn't have anything to do with her because she lived among pigs; Negroes wouldn't have anything to do with her because she was white. She couldn't live like Mr. Dolphus Raymond, who preferred the company of Negroes, because she didn't own a riverbank and she wasn't from a fine old family.17

Assuming Tom does not lie under oath, she goes to pathetic lengths to set up an encounter with him. And, as Atticus puts it in the closing statement,

[S]he … broke[] a rigid and time-honored code of our society. … [S]he kissed a black man. … No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards.18

The Ewell family is berated throughout the book for ignoring the rules. They lack the integrity and sense of duty that characterizes Atticus. The town has even given up on applying the rules to this family. The children are permitted to avoid school, and Bob Ewell is allowed to hunt out of season.19 The reader is set up to think that Mayella, acting in the Ewell manner, pursued her own desires and was willing to serve her selfish ends at the expense of Tom's life. Harper Lee's didacticism requires me to read her book this way. I think it says little about rape cases in the real world to acknowledge that this is what happened in the fictional world of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Professor Lubet cites Atticus's demand for corroboration, a demand too easily used against rape victims.20 Since rape usually takes place in the absence of witnesses other than the defendant and the victim, the demand for corroboration can undermine many rape prosecutions. One answer here is that Harper Lee wrote at a time when problems of racial injustice demanded greater attention. It would be another fifteen years before Susan Brownmiller wrote Against Our Will,21 which focused public attention on the feminist issues involving rape. Brownmiller wrote of the resistance she met as she tried to pursue her study. One librarian responded to her inquiries this way:

I'm sorry, young lady. If you're serious about your subject you need to start with the historic injustice to black men. That must be your approach.22

It is hardly surprising, then, that Lee, in 1960, failed to infuse her description of the rape trial with feminist sensibility.

The effect of the death penalty must not be ignored. Tom Robinson was accused of a capital offense. Atticus had a “profound distaste for the practice of criminal law” that stems from the execution of his first two clients. (They had at least committed murder—and had done so in the presence of three witnesses.23) Atticus, conservative man that he is, does not, like his son (and the Supreme Court, in later days24), object to death as the penalty for rape, but he demands a greater certainty of evidence before the death penalty is given for any crime:

The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant's entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There's always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he's innocent.25

Atticus's demand for more evidence in Tom Robinson's case must be read in conjunction with his beliefs about the death penalty. Moreover, the demand for corroboration relates in a special way to the evidence in this case. Mayella's failure to seek a medical examination is itself evidence that combines with other evidence to suggest that her father was the one who inflicted her injuries. Mayella was not a woman too shamed and intimidated to go to the hospital in time to preserve the evidence.26 Mayella, discovered and thus already exposed to shame, avoided taking steps that might have produced exculpatory evidence, and this omission sheds light on Mayella's credibility. Of course, what she is hiding—her father's violence—she is intimidated into hiding. She should not have been the object of contempt, and this incident should have been resolved by rescuing her from her abusive home.

Mayella is allowed to end her testimony with an irrelevant rant and then to refuse to say any more. According to Scout (who has some strangely age-inappropriate insight into the legal system):

I guess if she hadn't been so poor and ignorant, Judge Taylor would have put her under the jail for the contempt she had shown to everybody in the courtroom.27

But why does Atticus not seek a remedy when she refuses to testify? Perhaps he knows the judge too well: Judge Taylor disapproved of lawyers who called too much attention to the niceties of procedure.28 Perhaps it was strategic: Mayella's refusal to continue to testify, like her refusal to seek medical attention, made her look even more like a person with something to hide. But had Atticus persisted in drawing out the truth about Mayella's life, evidence of Bob Ewell's crimes might have emerged. Mayella was a victim, not of rape, but of domestic violence, and by not pressing forward in extracting more evidence, Atticus (perhaps appropriately focused on his client) ends up protecting Bob Ewell, who can apparently not only hunt out of season but beat his children with impunity. This is part of the Atticus model: toleration of an imperfect world and acceptance of the limited effect of one's proper performance of one's own assigned role.

Does Atticus torture Mayella as Professor Lubet writes? Again, I would point to the rabid dog incident. Dropping the dog in one shot is not torturing the dog. Indeed, to choose Atticus for the job is to choose to minimize unnecessary suffering. There is nothing of the sadist in this picture of Atticus after he finishes in cross-examining Mayella:

Atticus had hit her hard in a way that was not clear to me, but it gave him no pleasure to do so. He sat with his head down, and I never saw anybody glare at anyone with the hatred Mayella showed when she left the stand and walked by Atticus's table.29

There is no glee or triumph here, just the weary completion of a task by a dutiful man with a role to play. Atticus Finch is an example: a man who has found a way to live and work as a good person in a deeply flawed society.


  1. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird 211-12 (1960).

  2. Id. at 211.

  3. Id.

  4. Id. at 212.

  5. Id. at 204.

  6. Another man who has withdrawn from society is Boo Radley. Boo sits in his house and keeps an eye on the little town, and is able to act at one point, also, to help the children. But he himself is childlike and unable to operate on a daily basis in the flawed world of his little town.

  7. Lee, supra note 1, at 83.

  8. Id.

  9. Id. at 218.

  10. Id. at 107.

  11. It is amusing to suggest that Atticus is a hired gun when he is paid in turnip greens and pecans by his Depression Era clients.

  12. See Lee, supra note 1, at 10-11.

  13. Id. at 204.

  14. Id. at 192.

  15. Id. at 193.

  16. See id. at 187, 196-97.

  17. Id. at 204.

  18. See id. at 216.

  19. Id. at 37.

  20. See Susan Estrich, Real Rape 42-44 (1987).

  21. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975).

  22. Id. at 212.

  23. See Lee, supra note 1, at 11.

  24. See Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977).

  25. Lee, supra note 1, at 232.

  26. See Estrich, supra note 20, at 21.

  27. Lee, supra note 1, at 200.

  28. See id. at 201.

  29. Id. at 200.

Rob Atkinson (essay date May 1999)

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SOURCE: Atkinson, Rob. “Comment on Steven Lubet, ‘Reconstructing Atticus Finch.’” Michigan Law Review 97, no. 6 (May 1999): 1370-72.

[In the following essay, Atkinson responds to the essay “Reconstructing Atticus Finch,” by Steven Lubet. Atkinson argues that, taking To Kill a Mockingbird on its own “childishly simplistic” moral terms, Atticus Finch is certainly a role model. However, Atkinson concludes that the book is a less complex and morally challenging novel than it is given credit for.]

Professor Lubet has joined a growing list of revisionists who question Atticus's standing as the paragon of lawyerly virtue [in To Kill a Mockingbird,].1 But Professor Lubet takes revisionism in a distinctly postmodern direction, if not to a radically new level. Atticus's previous critics have wondered how he could have overlooked, perhaps even condoned, the pervasive racism, sexism, and classism of the Depression-era South. They have even occasionally censured his paternalism toward his pro bono client, the working-class black rape defendant Tom Robinson. But they have never questioned either Tom's claim of innocence or the propriety of Atticus's advocacy of that claim. Professor Lubet questions both.

Early on, he asks, “What if Mayella Ewell [the accusing witness] was telling the truth? What if she really was raped (or nearly raped) by Tom Robinson? What do we think then of Atticus Finch?”2 Professor Lubet suggests we may—indeed, should—interpret the story so that Mayella and her father are not so evil, nor Tom so pure, nor Atticus so wise as they appear to be—as, indeed, both Scout, the narrator, and Lee, the author, would have us believe they are. He cites textual evidence in support of this admittedly novel reading,3 but I can return no better than a Scots' verdict: not proved. Unreliable narrators and inconsistent perspectives are, of course, standard features of sophisticated fiction and film. But Lee gives us no hint of Scout's being anything other than right about Tom Robinson's innocence and Atticus's wisdom. To Kill a Mockingbird, Pulitzer Prize and Academy Awards notwithstanding, is no Rashomon.4 Contrary to Lubet's suggestion, there are not three accounts (Scout's, Tom's, and Mayella's), each plausibly vying for the reader's credence.5 There are only two, Tom's truth and Mayella's lie, each revealed to us for precisely what it is by a virtually omniscient, firm but fair father through the eyes of an innocent child, all in open court.

Professor Lubet's answer to such text-based skepticism about Mayella's testimony is an invitation to rewrite the book in the name of “responsible reading,” unbound by, if not indifferent to, the author's obvious intent.6 If we cannot believe the characters as they appear in the story, if they strike us as stock figures or stereotypes,7 then we should revise the story to suit ourselves, to better fit our take on normative and descriptive reality external to the story. That approach may have many modern—more properly speaking, post-modern—defenders; I am emphatically not among them.

My preference8 is a very different approach. Let's take the story on its own terms and wonder why we, as a culture, particularly a legal culture, have been so willing, for so long, to believe in something so childishly simplistic: a satisfied, subservient Black—literally and figuratively a “Tom”—is abused by congenitally and incorrigibly evil white trash, only to be rescued by a rusticating, classics-reading, glasses-wearing but (literally!) straight-shooting father-who-knows-best. If Lubet were right—if Tom were guilty or Atticus mistaken, if there were even any question on either point—Harper Lee's open love letter to her father would be a much more complex and morally challenging book.

But it isn't.9 And that isn't as much a criticism of its characters, or even their creator, as it is of us. Harper Lee has given us the Gospel According to Atticus in the words of his chief disciple. Scout, as Professor Lubet implies, seems a thinly veiled stand-in for Lee herself.10 But we are the ones who have included her story in our canon and who continue to work and worship Atticus's golden image. I suspect—indeed, I have argued at length11—that we polish that image so earnestly because we see ourselves reflected in it so exactly. Lubet says that readers overlook the flaws in Lee's narrative because they “are anxious for Tom's vindication.”12 True enough—but we are the readers, and we are also anxious that our role model do the vindicating, and thus vindicate us, too.13 As Professor Lubet points out, Harper Lee knew her audience well;14 the makers and marketers of icons invariably do. True prophets seldom present as lovely an image of their compatriots, and they are seldom as loved in their own countries.15


  1. For a representative sampling of revisionist thinking, see Symposium, To Kill a Mockingbird, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 389 (1994). The earliest and most sympathetic, but also arguably the most perceptive Atticus critic is Thomas L. Shaffer. See Thomas L. Shaffer & Mary M. Shaffer, American Lawyers and Their Communities: Ethics in the Legal Profession passim (1991).

  2. Steven Lubet, Reconstructing Atticus Finch, 97 Mich. L. Rev. 1339, 1340 (1999).

  3. See id. at 208-11.

  4. Rashomon (RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. 1952).

  5. See Lubet, supra note 2, at 1341-45.

  6. Id. at 1346.

  7. See id. at 1355 (describing Atticus, Tom, and Mayella as “didactic characters, almost stick-figures”).

  8. I choose “my preference” for the full force of its subjectivity; I deeply share the “postmodern” doubt that I can invoke any objective standard dispositively to prove my approach is better than Professor Lubet's, aesthetically or ethically.

  9. In moments of more conventional, less postmodern criticism, Lubet himself says as much. See Lubet, supra note 2, at 1355. (“We know, of course, what Harper Lee intended, and the flaws in Tom's defense are really just weaknesses in the author's storytelling.”).

  10. See id. at 1346.

  11. See Rob Atkinson, Lawyers and Liberation: Diverging Parallels in To Kill a Mockingbird and Intruder in the Dust, 49 Duke L.J. (forthcoming Dec. 1999).

  12. Lubet, supra note 2, at 1355.

  13. Lubet makes almost precisely this point at the outset, only to subordinate it to his theme that Atticus may not “really” be as good as he seems. See id. at 1340 (“So Atticus Finch saves us by providing a moral archetype, by reflecting nobility upon us. … But what if Atticus is not an icon?”). To paraphrase (and pun) Shakespeare's Cassius in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, the fault lies not in our star, but in ourselves.

  14. See Lubet, supra note 2, at 1355.

  15. In the words of the Gospels, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” Mark 6:4 (King James); see also Matthew 13:57; John 4:44.

Patrick Chura (essay date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Chura, Patrick. “Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmet Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird.Southern Literary Journal 32, no. 2 (spring 2000): 1-26.

[In the following essay, Chura discusses the representation of race and justice in To Kill a Mockingbird in the historical context of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s.]

Though there is a strong consensus that To Kill a Mockingbird is deeply oriented within the history of the Depression era, no analysis has attempted to separate the historical conditions of the moment of the text's production in the mid 1950s from the historical present of the novel, the mid 1930s. Such analysis is revealing, first because under scrutiny the novel's 1930s history is exposed as at times quite flawed in its presentation of facts. The WPA, for example, did not exist until 1935, but it is mentioned in the novel's fourth chapter, which is set in 1933. Eleanor Roosevelt did not violate segregation law by sitting with black audience members at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Birmingham until 1938, but this event is mentioned by Mrs. Merriweather during the fall of 1935. More important than these several occasional chronological lapses, however, is the novel's participation in racial and social ideology that characterized not the Depression era but the early civil rights era. Because the text's 1930s history is superficial, the novel is best understood as an amalgam or cross-historical montage, its “historical present” diluted by the influence of events and ideology concurrent with its period of production. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, for example, stimulated a national debate in which Lee's novel participates and upon which it offers forceful commentary. As fundamental a presence in To Kill a Mockingbird is the structural and ideological detail of the Emmett Till trial of 1955,1 which upon close consideration seems unquestionably to have provided a workable model for aspects of Lee's fictional Tom Robinson trial. In other words, racial events and ideology of the 1950s—the period concurrent with the novel's production—leach into the depiction of Lee's 1930s history, orienting large sections the text not to the Depression era but to social conditions of the civil rights era. The mid 1950s/early civil rights era is therefore the context from which the novel is best understood as the intersection of cultural and literary ideology.

Lee herself hints at the contradictions contained within conflicting historical periodicity when she informs the reader early in the novel that its events are depicted from a somewhat distant perspective, “when enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them” (3). Simply because neither the author nor even Scout, her first person narrator and authorial surrogate, can experience the 1930s within the 1930s but must interpret from a later moment invested with its own discrete historical perspective, historical prolepsis—the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished—is inevitable, and it is an indication that Lee's 1930s historical background, though developed in some detail, should not be allowed to obscure the real conditions which governed the text's production in the years from roughly 1955 to 1959.

Central issues of Harper Lee's fictional Tom Robinson case, along with cultural tensions ascendant in the aftermath of the May 17, 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, are located in the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered by two white men in the Mississippi Delta on August 28, 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a store in Money, Mississippi. There is a long list of similarities both circumstantial and deeply ideological between the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and Lee's account of the conviction and murder of Tom Robinson, similarities which point to the common origin of both texts in a particularly troubled period in the southern history of race.

During the mid to late 1950s, race relations in the Deep South were of course defined and dominated by the Brown decision, which negated the doctrine of “separate but equal” that had since Plessy v. Ferguson been the basis of the South's segregated way of life. Prior to the 1954 decision, what Benjamin Muse has called an “unwholesome stability” (1) had prevailed in the South, depriving nearly all blacks of the right to vote and adhering to strict and inviolable de facto and de jure segregation of the races in all areas of social life in which mixing of any kind could result in the suggestion of social equality.

The business of “keeping the negro in his place” (Muse 39) had for centuries been a major concern in the South, but Brown v. Board of Education greatly exacerbated the southern fears relating to racial mixing, amalgamation, and expectations of social equality for blacks, creating what Newby terms a “a new racism” (10) that directly responded to the Supreme Court's authority by “recasting old ideas to meet a new national mood” (10). In the immediate aftermath of decision, the Deep South exhibited the paranoia of a closed society that could not distinguish the defense of a “‘few social areas’ from the entire structure of white supremacy” (Whitfield 11). The preservation of white patriarchy “seemed to require the suppression of even the most insignificant challenges to authority” (11). The rising influence and activism of the NAACP resulted not only in the formation of the White Citizens Councils but production and dissemination of inflammatory anti-integration literature, organization of anti-integration rallies, intimidation of the small number of blacks who had registered to vote, condemnation of the “liberals and dogooders” in the both the South and in Washington, and the implicit call for violent resistance to the idea of school integration.

Foremost among all latent and overtly expressed fears that were directly intensified by the Brown decision was that surrounding interracial sex. Gunnar Myrdal's exhaustive 1947 study of southern culture had asked white southerners to choose among six categories in gauging what they believed blacks most desired by asserting their civil rights. First in ranking came “intermarriage and sex intercourse with whites” (Myrdal 58). It is indisputable that the Brown decision, ostensibly about school desegregation, was actually understood by many in the South as a dangerous amelioration of deadly serious taboos regarding sexual relations between black males and white females. According to Whitaker, “Nowhere does the fear based on sex show up more clearly than in the disputes surrounding the 1954 Supreme Court decision” (12). Myrdal states emphatically, “Sex was the principle around which the whole structure of segregation … was organized. And it was because of sex that racial segregation … was intended to permeate every aspect of society” (589). Whitaker concurs in explaining that the “main worry” notably heightened and reified by the Brown decision was “the mixed relations between the races, especially relations that might lead to sex affairs or marriage” (13). As the rhetoric of the Citizens Councils clearly indicates2, the twin fears of amalgamation and miscegenation resulting from “mixed relations” between blacks and whites rested ultimately on the idea that “marriage or sexual intimacy with blacks would degrade and eventually extinguish Anglo-Saxon civilization itself” (Whitfield 1-2).

In the context of the Brown decision, mixed schooling therefore meant much more than the implication of social equality. President Eisenhower may have inadvertently verbalized some of the deepest fears of southerners when he explained in 1954 that segregationists “were not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in schools along side some big overgrown negroes” (qtd. in Whitfield 72). Based as it is on what was in the South at this time an exceptionally offensive concept—that of sexually mature black men in close proximity to white females—this sentiment surfaces frequently in ideology of the post-Brown era. In his research into the period, Whitfield encountered these representative Southern views: “A negro of 14 may be in the fourth grade with a white girl of 10 or 11, and the negro is a fully developed man, sexually” (9). “You make a negro believe he is equal … and the first thing he wants is a white woman” (9). Not surprisingly in this atmosphere, the lurid and provocative image of the “black rapist,” though it had existed in southern code and southern white mythology as early as the 1880s,3 was now resurrected in the southern consciousness and rhetoric (Whitfield 3).

The September 1955 trial of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam for the murder of Emmett Till in retribution for allegedly whistling at and talking in a suggestive way to Carolyn Bryant was front page news throughout the country. When Bryant and Milam were found not guilty by an all-white, all-male jury that deliberated only 67 minutes—“it would have been a quicker decision, said the foreman, if we hadn't stopped to drink a bottle of pop” (Halberstam 441)—Milam and Bryant “stood acquitted in Mississippi and convicted by most of the nation” (441).

Graciously responding to my queries, Harper Lee has indicated that she was not in Mississippi in 1955 and was not present at the Emmett Till trial. But in order to be cognizant of the Till case and its meaning, she did not have to be. The Emmett Till trial, now forgotten by many, surprisingly absent from some recent histories, often ignored as one of the galvanizing events of the early civil rights movement, was in 1955 “probably the most widely publicized trial of the century” (Whitaker 148). Halberstam has termed it “an international incident” (432), “… the first great media event of the civil rights movement” (437). As the daughter of a well known Southern attorney and a one-time law student from a family with a considerable legal background,4 Harper Lee may be presumed to have taken an interest in the Till case, which was immediately identified as a monumental legal benchmark.5 In 1975, for example, the founder of the Citizens Councils attempted to identify the moment when the civil rights movement began: “It all started probably with a case of a young Negro boy named Emmett Till getting killed for offending some white woman … that made every newspaper on the face of the earth …” (Whitaker 148). Largely due to what most historians refer to as a decline of “faith in legalism” at the unconscionable verdict of the Till trial, blacks in the South were moved to attempt more concrete forms of protest. Within four months after Till's death, Alabama blacks were staging the Montgomery bus boycott—the first major battle in the civil rights era war against racial injustice.

Commonalities in the Emmett Till trial and the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird have been suggested but nowhere investigated. It was, for example, at a 1995 celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird that journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault (the first black student to enroll at the University of Georgia), perhaps unaware that, inexplicably, no constructive connection between the story of Tom Robinson and that of Emmett Till had ever even been investigated anywhere, described the Emmett Till story as “perhaps the closest my generation had come to the experience of Tom Robinson” (TKM: Then and Now).

The two cases are linked by numerous similarities of circumstance. Both cases combine the dual icons of the “black rapist” and concomitant fear of black male sexuality with mythologized “vulnerable and sacred” Southern womanhood. Both cases involve alleged transgressions of the strict inviolable mores barring social and sexual contact between black males and white females of any social class, for which, in both cases, the penalty is death for the black offender. Both cases are heard by all-white, all-male juries consisting primarily of Southern farmers. Both cases result in verdicts that preserve tenaciously held racial doctrine of the white power structure at the expense of justice and in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. In both cases a community of potentially fair-minded middle class whites is required, against its initial leanings and for reasons perceived as the lesser of two evils, to support the obviously false testimony of a pair of otherwise-despised poor whites. In both cases, a courageous attorney and a fair-minded judge tacitly cooperate in a futile attempt to ensure justice. In both cases, the black victim is a diminished physical specimen of a fully grown man. In both cases, the press or media emerge as a force for racial justice. In both cases, the concept of child murder figures prominently in the calculus of revenge for the racial and social shame of a class of poor Southern whites.

The list of similarities could go on, eventually extending even into relatively minor surface details, such as the fact that Emmett Till was killed on August 28, 1955 and that his body was found on August 31, dates which turn out to be practically identical to the date of Tom Robinson's death, which took place when “August was on the brink of September” (228).

Moreover, deeper connections are likewise discernible in a study of the cases as symbolic texts. Described by numerous historians as having a “muscular build,” fourteen-year-old eighth-grader Emmett Till is not only comparable to the “muscular” but crippled Tom Robinson, but as an out-of-place, culturally displaced child, he fits well into Harper Lee's symbolic “mockingbird” category which encompasses the concepts of innocence, victimization, and wrongful persecution. Emmett Till's murderers, the half-brothers Roy Bryant and J. W. “Big” Milam, are described by Whitaker as a “rightly knit family” (107) that resembles the Ewells, whose joint testimony condemns Tom Robinson. Also like the Ewells, Bryant and Milam were “poor whites” or “rednecks” who provoked reactions of fear and disgust among both blacks and other whites in the local community. To the Ewells and Bryant-Milam, the term “white trash” (144) used by Whitaker is equally applicable. “People who knew Milam and Bryant,” Whitaker notes “disliked them and were afraid of them” (144). In interviews conducted by Whitaker in the early 1960s, Milam and Bryant were “invariably referred to as ‘peckerwoods,’ ‘white trash’ and other terms of similar disapprobation” (144). Like both Milam and Bryant, Bob Ewell had served in the military and is described by Lee as “the veteran of an obscure war” (217), whose inclination to violence is at one point in the novel explained by Lee's narrator as a vestige of his war experience. Commissioned in battle in Europe during World War II, Milam, thirty-six years old, was “especially proud of his war record” (Whitaker 108) and has been described by all primary sources as having learned to relish violence through his military service.

Tom Robinson's physical handicap of a crippled left arm—the arm having been “caught in a cotton gin” at the age of twelve—is emphasized in Lee's novel as a factor which should have resulted in acquittal or at least serious doubt not only concerning Tom Robinson's ability to choke and rape Mayella Ewell but to produce the kind of injuries she suffers on the right side of her face. In the circumstances surrounding the Till case, another kind of handicap, this time a “speech defect … a stutter, the result of nonparalytic polio at the age of three” (Whitfield 15) is raised as a possible exonerating factor for the kind of transgression Till is alleged to have committed. Both in the immediate frenzy of press reports surrounding the murder and in interviews as recent as 1987, Mrs. Bradley claimed that her son's alleged “wolf whistle” was actually a manifestation of his stuttering problem:

He had particular trouble with b's and m's … He was trying to say “bubble gum,” but he got stuck. So he whistled. … I taught him, whenever he had trouble stuttering, to blow it out … I can see him try to say “bubble gum” and blowing or whistling in Mrs. Bryant's presence.6

Immediately after Till's body was found, Till's uncle, Moses Wright, had also explained that Till “had polio when he was three and he couldn't talk plain. You could hardly understand him.”7 Till's speech defect as an extenuating factor in the case was accepted by parties other than Mrs. Bradley as late as 1962, when NAACP Regional Secretary Ruby Hurley, asked for clarification of the issue by Hugh Whitaker during his research into the case, gave what Whitaker terms the “official NAACP version” of the event. Ms. Hurley explained that Till's “only crime was the alleged ‘whistling’ at a woman. The ‘whistling’ was a defect in his speech as a result of a polio attack” (Whitaker 133).

Though these explanations may strain credulity, they were and are a part of the still unresolved confusion over what actually took place at the Bryant store that August evening in 1955. The term by which the Till case came to be known—the “wolf whistle” case—emphasizes the centrality of the possible speech defect as an exculpatory detail that clearly resembles Tom Robinson's similarly exonerating physical defect.

The bodies of both Emmett Till and Tom Robinson were horribly mutilated by excessive racially provoked violence intended to send a message about the seriousness of the alleged transgression and the tenacity with which existing social codes would be defended by the white power structure. Till's swollen decomposed body could be identified only by the ring he wore and was “badly mutilated. … The body had apparently been beaten severely, and there was a hole the size of a bullet above the right ear” (Whitaker 118). Tom Robinson is shot seventeen times by prison guards—his death ostensibly the result of an attempt to flee from the Enfield Prison during an outdoor exercise period. Though Tom Robinson is said to have run toward the fence “in a blind raving charge” (235) and failed to stop after the guards had “fired a few shots into the air” (235), the killing, referred to later in the novel by Mr. Underwood as a “senseless slaughter” (241) is almost certainly racially motivated. Atticus is told that the guards shot Tom “just as he went over the fence” (235), but Scout's response of uncontrollable shaking when she hears the news is caused by her knowledge that the exercise yard at Enfield is “the size of a football field” (236) together with the fact that Tom had “seventeen bullet holes in him” and that, as Atticus explains, “they didn't have to shoot him that much” (235). Though it would have been futile and perhaps impossible in the racial climate of the era to legally challenge or investigate the cause and motives of Tom Robinson's killing, beginning with the question of the number of shots used to kill him, the death as described from the guards' account appears dubious and not entirely logical. Scout's shaking results probably from the visual image of the killing she is able to create for herself from having earlier had the Enfield Prison exercise yard “pointed out” to her by Atticus. The size of the yard, the picture of a man with the use of only one arm attempting to climb the fence, the claim by the guards that Tom had nearly escaped, the seventeen shots used to stop him—all suggest a killing with a motive other than simply preventing Tom from fleeing. Lee's text unquestionably permits if not compels a reading of the event as a cold-blooded, racially motivated murder quite similar to the murder of Emmett Till.

A number of the leading figures in the Till case have obvious counterparts in To Kill a Mockingbird. Attorney Gerald Chatham, the prosecutor in the Till case, resembles Atticus Finch, and his efforts throughout the case are by several historical accounts described as “a valiant but futile effort to see justice done” (Whitaker 153). The circumstances in which Chatham and Atticus Finch found themselves, as attorneys fighting a losing battle against communal racist feelings and a verdict that is a foregone conclusion, are of course strikingly similar. Though according to Whitfield much of the transcript of the trial has been lost, several sources extol the “stirring oratory” (Whitaker 153) of Chatham and assistant Robert B. Smith's closing arguments. What little survives of the actual text of the arguments includes Smith's allusion to the “guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Whitfield 41) from the same sentence of the Declaration of Independence to which Atticus alludes in his closing argument in the Robinson case when he reminds the jury that “all men are created equal” (205). Whitaker compares Chatham to William Jennings Bryan and notes that after Chatham's closing argument, “all other summations were an ‘anti-climax’” (153). After the trial and its verdict, the Southern black press praised the work of Chatham and, as Whitaker explains, “wrote encouragingly” (162) of his and his assistant prosecutor's performance in a way that recalls the respectful tributes paid to Atticus by the local black community after the Tom Robinson trail. All accounts of the trial agree that Chatham and Smith had made their case “ably and diligently” (Whitaker 162), and they are repeatedly described as having “done their utmost … despite having no assistance from the sheriff or police investigators in obtaining evidence” (162).

The fact that Gerald Chatham died of a heart attack at the age of 50, only one year after the Emmett Till trial, and that Chatham's relatives, when interviewed by Whitaker, felt “that the exertion in this trial hastened his death” (162) recalls several comments made in To Kill a Mockingbird about Atticus by Aunt Alexandra. At the news of Tom Robinson's killing, Alexandra reacts with anger to the town's seeming disregard for the health of her brother: “I just want to know when this will ever end … It tears him to pieces … it tears him to pieces … They're perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they're afraid to do” (236). For Chatham as for Atticus, one momentous case became a self-defining moment; though Chatham had had a long career in law, his obituary referred only to “the Emmett Till case” in summarizing his public life (Whitaker 163).

Chatham and presiding judge in the Till case Curtis Swango seemed to work toward a common purpose in much the same way Harper Lee's Atticus Finch and Judge Taylor tacitly cooperate. As in the Robinson case, there is in the language surrounding the Till case the suggestion of collusion or at least mutual support between the justice-seeking lawyer and the sympathetic judge. To all observers of the Till trial, including Halberstam, it appeared that Chatham and Judge Curtis Swango, like Atticus Finch and Judge Taylor, “were set to do all they could in the hope that, by some miracle” a just verdict could be rendered (Whitaker 147). Describing Judge Taylor's way of looking at Bob Ewell during the latter's testimony “as if he were a three-legged chicken or a square egg” (250), Atticus remarks “Don't tell me judges don't try to prejudice juries” (250). Asked by Jem “who in this town did one thing to help Tom Robinson?” (215), Miss Maudie replies “People like Judge Taylor” (215). In a similar way, defense attorneys Kellum and Breland described Judge Curtis Swango as “bending over backward” to aid the case against Milam and Bryant.8 And the fact that Atticus had been selected by Judge Taylor as Tom Robinson's defender is clearly linked to his desire to ensure the case is given a chance. When Scout suddenly realizes that “Maxwell Green should have had Tom Robinson's case” (215) and that the appointment of Atticus was meant to ensure a vigorous defense and is therefore, as Miss Maudie explains, “no accident” (216), the extent of Judge Taylor's own “bending over backward” for Tom Robinson is apparent.

Judge Swango's determination to keep the proceedings as fair as possible was obvious at several key moments and “won the respect of all (presumably all non-racist observers) who attended the trial” (Whitaker 163 my parenthesis). Aware of the damaging effect that testimony by Carolyn Bryant might have on the all white jury in the case, for example, Swango ruled the testimony of Mrs. Roy Bryant unrelated to the murder and thus inadmissible. Whitfield quotes black congressman Charles Diggs, who attended the Till trial, as being impressed with the “fairness of Judge Swango” (45). The Nation praised Swango and Chatham for their “devotion throughout this occasion … to justice” (Whitaker 45). That Judge Swango was reelected in the year after the Till trial is a fact curiously reminiscent of Atticus' own reelection to the Alabama state legislature in the term following his efforts on behalf of Tom Robinson.

The story of the determined rejection of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam by their community in the aftermath of the Till trial closely parallels community attitudes toward Bob Ewell after the Robinson trial. After the Robinson case, having had “his brief burst of fame” (248), Bob Ewell not only “acquired and lost a job in a matter of days … fired from the WPA for laziness” (248)—a fact which is acknowledged by the narrator as “unique in the annals of the nineteen-thirties” (248), but he is ostracized by the same community that had felt the need to support him in his accusations against Tom Robinson. When Aunt Alexandra wonders why Ewell, having “had his way in court” (250) continues to harbor a grudge, Atticus explains: “I think I understand … It might be because he knows in his heart that few people in Maycomb really believed his and Mayella's yarns. He thought he'd be a hero, but all he got for his pain was … was, okay, we'll convict this Negro but get back to your dump” (250). “I destroyed his last shred of credibility in that trial,” (218) Atticus asserts. The strong aversion among Maycomb citizens for Ewell is shown most directly by Link Deas who defends Helen Robinson from Ewell's harassment and aggressively humiliates Ewell to keep him from trying it again.

In much the same way, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were rejected by both white and black elements of their community after the Till trail. The Milam-Bryant family had owned a chain of small country stores which catered almost exclusively to blacks. Immediately after the Till incident, these stores were boycotted, and all had to be closed or sold within fifteen months. Attempting then to make a living as a farmer, Milam tried but was unable to rent land for the 1956 crop year (Whitaker 160). Bryant also “had trouble finding work” (160), and “finding themselves not accepted in the Mississippi Delta” (160) Bryant and his family moved to Texas in 1957. Like Bob Ewell, both Milam and Bryant were feared, distrusted and shunned by the citizens who had stood up for them and “swarmed to [their] defense” (160) in the Till case. The underlying feelings in Southern society toward men like Ewell, Milam and Bryant is thus a subject of some interest and complexity. They are seen at various times and by various observers both as defenders of the race, “keeping the niggers in line” and “protecting women from the lust of negro men” (Whitfield 30), but outside this role they are scorned and ostracized for reasons of class. Initially denounced in the press and unable to find lawyers who would defend them, Milam and Bryant were eventually represented pro bono when opinion swung in their favor and the community of the Delta, in a strongly self-defensive reaction to what it perceived as Northern press bias against Mississippi, decided to rally around two of “its own.”

Till's mother, Mrs. Mamie Bradley, is linked in an intriguing way to Helen Robinson, the wife of Tom Robinson. Though Sheriff Clarence Strider had ordered the immediate burial of Till's body in Mississippi, Mrs. Bradley had requested that the body be sent back to Chicago, where she received it in the Illinois Central terminal from which her son had left for his vacation two weeks earlier (Whitfield xiii). The scene was witnessed by a crowd of family friends and media, and there is a famous UPI photo that was taken in Chicago upon the arrival of the casket bearing Emmett Till's body. As the casket was unloaded and presented to her, Mrs. Bradley cried “Lord, Take my soul,” and collapsed (Whitfield xiii). The expression of horror and pain on her face, the crate containing the casket in the foreground, and the three clergymen pressing near Mrs. Bradley to raise her limp, paralyzed body appeared in newspapers across the country in early September 1955. In To Kill a Mockingbird, a strongly analogous scene, in which Helen Robinson is informed by Atticus that her husband has been killed, is witnessed and described by Dill: “Scout … she just fell down in the dirt. Just fell down in the dirt, like a giant with a big foot just came along and stepped on her … Like you'd step on an ant” (240). The near match of the two scenes, strongly suggestive of a possible influence in terms of both situation and the emotional context, has been previously overlooked.

The press became a catalyst in the growth of the civil rights movement, and one of its major roles became that of a defender and chronicler of injustice, clearly taking the side of social progress and arguing powerfully the case of the oppressed. Covering the Till trial in 1955, Halberstam had reflected “This was something different … for the first time there was a national agenda on civil rights (437) … Something new was being created, the civil rights beat it was called, for this new and aggressive young press corps” (441). Under the gaze of these progress-minded reporters primarily from the North but including some southerners, it would be impossible to hide crimes like the Till murder in remote corners of the South. After the Till verdict, “newspapers around the world reacted with editorials of condemnation” (Whitaker 157). The Till case was unique not only for the extent and the energy of the press coverage, but also for the slow sea changes it exposed in the southern media. Though the Scottsboro trials in the 1930s had excited considerable media interest, the lurid details of alleged gang rape and the provocative testimony of two alleged white prostitutes that were part of that of that case are cited by Whitaker as obvious factors. The Till case for the first time saw a noticeable majority of media take a strongly progressive stance on issues of civil rights. Many Mississippi and Alabama newspapers would eventually support the verdict exonerating Bryant and Milam, but this is readable as a gesture of self-defense against the strength of the condemnation leveled against Mississippi by the rest of the world after the verdict. The equal applicability to the Till case of Atticus' discernment of “the shadow of a beginning” (221) of racial progress is here clearly reflected.

In Lee's novel, the role of the press as a determined advocate of civil rights appears symbolically in the form of Mr. B. B. Underwood, owner, publisher, and editor of the Maycomb Tribune. It is Mr. Underwood, for example, “leaning out his window above the Maycomb Tribune office” with “a double barreled shotgun” (155), who backs up Atticus in his confrontation with the lynch mob in Chapter 15. “Had you covered all the time, Atticus,” shouts Mr. Underwood as the mob disperses. Described as “a profane little man, whose father … had christened Braxton Bragg, a name he had done his best to live down” (156), Mr. Underwood is a figure of the New South who puts aside risks to himself to write and publish a passionate denunciation of Tom Robinson's murder. In his editorial, referred to by the narrator in Chapter 25, “Mr. Underwood was at his most bitter, and he couldn't have cared less who canceled advertising subscriptions … He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in The Montgomery Adviser” (241).

Among the most profound examples of mutually illuminating influence between the Till story and Lee's novel is the central presence in both of the concept of child murder. Not surprisingly, “child murder” was an immediate and persistent theme of outrage in the Till case. NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, for example, gave what came to be a frequently repeated synopsis of the Till incident: “It would appear that the state of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children.”9 In a well known statement of September 1955, William Faulkner called Emmett Till “an afflicted Northern child” and then used the case to indict American society in general: “… if we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don't deserve to survive, and probably won't” (qtd. in Wexler 63). The climactic scene of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Scout and Jem are attacked by Bob Ewell in revenge for their father's role in the Robinson trial, replicates the motive and pattern of the crime against Emmett Till. After the attack, Sheriff Heck Tate's caustic description of Bob Ewell as “brave enough to kill children” (269) applies equally to Emmett Till's murderers, who are likewise compelled to retaliate for public humiliation by a deviant sense of Southern honor. That Bob Ewell meant to kill Scout and Jem is unequivocally established by Sheriff Tate, who finds Scout's chicken wire Halloween costume “crushed to a pulp” (269) with a gash where Ewell's knife had struck at her. The costume “probably saved her life … Bob Ewell meant business” (269) Tate concludes.

In accordance with a vestigial remnant of the Southern social code made applicable in post bellum culture to poor whites, if Roy Bryant had failed to act after Till's alleged remarks to his wife, “the shame would be his” (Whitaker 77). Furthermore, as Whitfield and others have asserted, Bryant's sense of honor was threatened in large part by the fact that the matter had inevitably become public—that local blacks and other whites were talking about the incident in the Bryant store. There were therefore two distinct motives compelling Bryant and Milam to act. One was obviously racial, but the other has more to do with public familial shame and loss of honor. Once this is acknowledged, Bob Ewell's violent retaliation, sensed by Jem and Scout but not by Atticus, who inexplicably discounts the threat Ewell poses, is more easily explained. Had Ewell stood still after Tom Robinson's death, he would have satisfied only the racial half of the revenge equation. His need to strike out at the source of his public disgrace is as compelling. For Bryant-Milam the locus of racial and public humiliation was black child Emmett Till. For Bob Ewell, the death of Tom Robinson satisfied a racial vendetta, but Ewell's public humiliation also called for retaliation of some form against Atticus, even if the victims were children. Such exegesis also throws light on the entire novel's indisputable thematic preoccupation with ideas of child-centered innocence profoundly applicable to the Emmett Till story. The novel's motto, for example, reads “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once” and Mr. Underwood's Chapter 25 editorial is written “so children could understand” (241). When the Robinson verdict is announced, Atticus remarks, “seems that only the children weep” (213).

Considered together, the actual and intended child murders located respectively in the Till case and Lee's novel emphasize the degradation of a deeply insecure segment of Southern society that could produce such perverse malice, whose poverty-corrupted antebellum social code of gentlemanly honor had become horrifically deviant in response of the fundamental challenge to its identificatory foundational principles presented by racial integration. The stark terms of Lee's representation of child murder during a period when a readership would almost certainly have been cognizant of the central issues of the Till case justifies a view of Lee's text as not only reflective of but engaged with and responsive to a civil rights era ideological agenda.

It is surprising that deeper connections between the Till case and Lee's Tom Robinson case have not previously been pursued. It may be that the issue never grew into a full-fledged study simply because as a murder trial Till's case could not on the surface be easily classified with Tom Robinson's. But the extremely psychologically charged and polarizing issues in both cases are identical: sexual relations of black males and white females, the stereotype of the black rapist, and the weight of such ideology in Southern society. Mrs. Farrow's remark in the aftermath of the Robinson trial in To Kill a Mockingbird that “there's no lady safe in her bed these nights” (232) is an uncannily accurate version of the tensions dominating both cases. And the comment made by Scout's teacher Miss Gates as she leaves the courthouse after the Robinson verdict replicates with remarkable precision a typical fear-driven response to concerns over black social progress from the post-Brown era in a way that actually seems more descriptive of Emmett Till than of Tom Robinson: “… it's time somebody taught 'em a lesson. They were gettin' way above themselves, an' the next thing they think they can do is marry us” (247). It was Emmett Till, after all, who is alleged to have suggested that he had already “been with white girls” (Whitfield 17) and asked Carolyn Bryant for a date, and who is reported to have shown both whites and blacks the wallet photo of his white girlfriend. Among the “traditions and customs of the South” that were involved in these cases, Whitaker correctly cites “Southern feelings with respect to the relationship of sex to the caste system of segregation” (ix) as most important, but the general ideology of segregation is also put forth in anger by Mrs. Merriweather in Chapter 24 of Lee's text: “People up there set 'em free, but you don't see 'em settin' at the table with 'em. At least we don't have the deceit to say to 'em yes you're as good as we are but stay away from us. Down here we just say you live your way and we'll live ours” (234). These views are inarguably the most accurate description of the social context in which both the Till and Robinson cases were deeply embedded. Charlayne Hunter-Gault's seemingly casual analogy linking the fictional Tom Robinson trial to the Emmett Till story is therefore amply justified.

It was in this atmosphere of provocative racial tension and salient race-sex anxiety concurrent with frequent trips in the mid 1950s between New York and her home in Monroeville, Alabama that Harper Lee worked at the manuscript that was to become To Kill a Mockingbird. The conflict over the Brown decision, the nearby Emmett Till case, the racist literature distributed by the Citizens Councils, the first black bus boycott and the beginning of the civil rights movement in Montgomery in 1956 were conspicuous features of a state of near fixation by national and regional media on Southern racial issues. The result is a novel that seems unquestionably to have passed through the transforming alembic of such powerful ideology.

That Lee's text wages explicit battles over meaning and sends liminal signals with which a readership immersed in conditions concurrent with the novel's 1960 publication could be expected to passionately respond is not surprising. But perhaps because, as Stephen Greenblatt has noted, a work's reception is “located in an intermediate zone of social transaction, a betwixt and between” (Learning to Curse 11), the transaction between author and reader is never certain. Interestingly, most immediate responses to Lee's novel chose either to acknowledge the text's serious participation in its social milieu or to completely discount the text as historically uninvolved and almost frivolous. In its period of initial reception, the novel is described as “in no way a sociological novel. It underlines no cause” (R. Sullivan), a “humorous book … wholesome as a dozen fresh eggs” and “an absolutely accurate picture of small town southern life in the 30s” (Waller) while simultaneously being touted as “a novel of strong contemporary national significance that deserves serious attention” (R. Sullivan). One interpretive key to the novel therefore lies in an identification of its periodicity, which has been, I would argue, the source of an ambiguity in a critical reception described by one of the novel's primary researchers as “baffling” (Johnson 24). Though Lee herself hinted in a 1961 interview that her setting “could have been the Mississippi Delta …” (Deitch) a locale with implicit significance within the novel's period of reception as the spark that ignited the civil rights movement, most critics have chosen to develop in the novel a set of concerns particular to the 1930s and the Depression era. In this way, the text itself seems to have a acquired a type of “mobility” described by Greenblatt as characteristic of enduring works of art that problematize the distinction between literary and non-literary texts while presenting mixed strains of ideology, and which are thus able to be reevaluated within the social context of each historical frame of reference by which they are touched (Learning to Curse 11).

The range of responses elicited by To Kill a Mockingbird also reflects a lingering uncertainty about whether Lee's text is essentially subversive or orthodox in its central insights—a confusion that is only partially explicable as a function of the novel's publication during a period when definitions of subversive and orthodox racial views were in flux. Explaining the dialectic between Shakespeare's art and an Elizabethan state authority censorial of subversive ideas regarding religious and political power, Greenblatt has described a process by which “subversive insights are generated in the midst of apparently orthodox texts and simultaneously contained by those texts, contained so efficiently that the society's licensing and policing apparatus is not directly engaged” (“Invisible Bullets” 41). Though Greenblatt views this condition as “an historical phenomenon, the particular mode of this particular (Elizabethan) culture” (57), I would argue that something very much like this “submissive subversiveness” in which “a disturbing vista … is glimpsed only to be immediately closed off” (52) occurs as well in Lee's novel.

The novel's denouement, for example, presents and endorses a conspiracy between Atticus and Sheriff Heck Tate that contradicts both characters' earlier strict adherence to legal procedure in the Tom Robinson case. By the terms of an improvised, legally subversive10 agreement, Arthur Radley's intervention on behalf of the Finch children and the killing of Bob Ewell in defense of the children are concealed with the false explanation that “Bob Ewell fell on his knife.” A deus ex machina personified in Boo Radley is thus allowed not only to intervene, to intervene anonymously, to intervene with impunity, but also to render compensatory justice, his actions sanctioned by both the sheriff and Maycomb's leading attorney. Not only will there be no investigation, legal charges or trial relating to Bob Ewell's death, but the circumstances of the death, including even the identity of the Arthur Radley as the salvific intercessor, will be suppressed. “There's a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it's dead,” Heck Tate argues, “Let the dead the bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead” (276). Atticus and Sheriff Tate then both acknowledge the killing of Bob Ewell not simply as a rescue of the Finch children but as symbolic retribution for the death of Tom Robinson.

Greenblatt's paradigm for Renaissance authority and its subversion—subversion created in order to be contained—is here re-presented with perhaps the one notable caveat that the subversion here “contained” by mutual agreement of Atticus, Heck Tate and later Scout is also implicitly sanctioned by the text as a viable situational response. That Arthur Radley killed Bob Ewell will not become public knowledge, and so the conspiracy to circumvent the ideological apparatus of the justice system is contained by and within a value system that judges not on the basis of legal syntax, but on an individualized concept of guilt or innocence that repudiates considerations of race or class. Thus the subversion presented by Lee departs from Greenblatt's Renaissance form only in that the “disturbing vista” that is “glimpsed only to be immediately closed off” presented in the former is orthodox and conservative (obedience to legal code over a personal value system), while that contained or closed off in the latter is liberal and heterodox. Such exegesis speaks volumes about the essential leanings of the era in which Lee wrote and published—an era in which forms of racial orthodoxy were constantly elided as the legal process either advanced the cause of civil rights—as in the Brown decision—or denied racial justice—as in the Emmett Till case. The Emmett Till case is often cited as a major factor in a collective erosion of faith in legalism—a disillusionment that called for nonviolent extralegal subversion—the source and eventual modus vivendi of the civil rights movement. In their commerce with both Emmett Till and Tom Robinson, legal remedies fail and are therefore elided into extralegal solutions. The substitute version of justice endorsed in To Kill a Mockingbird therefore implies the viability of a form of retribution for racial violence while exposing the limitations of legal redress for such violence, suggesting the efficacy of a particular kind of conscience-driven extralegal solution to extant racial conditions. Not without first creating and containing subversion, the plot strands involving Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are woven together in a way that constructs a form of moral consensus concerning the dividing line between law bound adherence and individual subversive behavior.

Of importance also is the fact that the suppression of truth regarding Bob Ewell's death is accepted by Atticus in clear contradiction to the legal code by which his whole professional and personal life has been structured. The change of heart—in which his whole sense of himself is at stake—constitutes significant growth in Atticus, who is now able to see the inefficacy of legalism. Atticus had earlier publicly affirmed his faith that “our courts are our great levelers” and that equal justice was “no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality” (205)—but the law that had failed Tom Robinson here attains a sudden protean flexibility, the logic of which amounts to a demystification of the legal system and its predictable machinations. In the falsity that hovers around the declaration of Atticus to Scout that “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife,” the reader is invited to suspend judgment and implicated in the rationalization. When Atticus asks his daughter, “Can you possibly understand?” Scout's “Yes sir, I understand” (276) is offered with her passionate reassurance that a greater good is contained in the version of events that is not literally but symbolically true: “Mr. Tate was right … it's be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?” (276). The private withdrawal of Atticus into this acknowledgment is intertwined with the great public crisis into which the period had been led by the Brown decision and the murder of Emmett Till, a crisis that gave rise to serious national questions about the efficacy of court sponsored racial justice.

By the end of Lee's novel then, the limitations of a particular and highly historically relevant ideological apparatus have been exposed, and the law is, even for Atticus, reduced to a ritual in which absolute faith is no longer possible. Through this process we perceive the potential instability of the structure of legal order in the South on the verge of the violent convulsions that attended the civil rights era. If the text here compels a consideration of the validity of subversive intervention, as it seems to have for at least some of Lee's contemporaries in the wake of the Emmett Till case, it is because, as Greenblatt explains, “power … is not perfectly monolithic and hence may encounter and record in one of its functions materials that can threaten another of its functions” (“Invisible Bullets” 50) … the simple operation of any systematic order … will inevitably run the risk of exposing its own limitations” (52). Because power “defines itself in relation to threats or simply to that which is not identical to it” (50) the full awareness of its effect requires what Greenblatt terms a collective “vigilance,” the kind of vigilance, I would suggest, that is practiced by Sheriff Tate and Atticus, who sanction the personal subversion of an institutional power to which both men had earlier expressed and enacted allegiance. This transference contains a radical questioning that insists passionately on the efficacy of action in obedience to the private commands of conscience instead of reliance on more orthodox forms of redress.11 In the “secret courts of men's hearts” (Lee 241) tainted as they are with virulent racial prejudice, neither Tom Robinson nor Emmett Till had any chance, but Lee's novel ends with the verdict of a secret court that, though it cannot restore the status quo ante by returning Tom Robinson to his family, does destroy the complicity between racism and a legal system that had been required to serve it—negating the very arrangement that had thwarted justice in the Robinson and Till cases.

Lee's novel therefore ends where the civil rights movement begins, with a resolve born of disillusionment to improvise ways and means of justice both within and outside a system that could convict Tom Robinson and acquit Emmett Till's murderers. In the presentation, discussion, containment and suppression of a court case pitting the state against Arthur Radley—a case that could have been but will not be—there is a conscious attempt to compensate for the disastrous effects of its antecedents in Tom Robinson and Emmett Till—court cases that could not have been but were. The text may be read as Lee's method of working out complex issues of conscience and subjectivity suggested by the Till case and the civil rights movement in general. Harper Lee's version of history, like the version of events agreed upon as the real story of Bob Ewell's death, is therefore not literally but symbolically “true,” retold in a way that liberates the essential symbolic precepts from the less significant details of place, time and circumstance while remaining passionately faithful to allegorical truth.

Seeking a paradigm within the purely fictional narrative of the novel for this transformation of historical detail to conform to a thematically unified but chronologically and spatially detached “text,” we need look no further than to the first-person narrator. Scout's inability to compartmentalize her own history is a good model for the way historical events or texts mesh synergistically into a kind of combination meaning which neither text comprises alone. Her most profound interpretations of the novel's events are not derived through conscious analysis, verbal instruction or logic. Instead, they seem enabled by a prelingual or prediscursive state of sleep-induced semi-consciousness in which events from different time periods come together to create a version of reality that is as individual as it is anachronistic in the sense of the word that literally means “outside of time.” Here she is subject to discourses or texts that are “of” both her past and present but which operate simultaneously and across time barriers. Scout's habit of falling asleep at various times and places in the novel often leaves her midway between conscious and unconscious thought and at a point where a previous and an immediate event or text intersect, and it is in this state that Scout discovers the profound truths that constitute her “maturation” in the story. This state, in which Scout tends to think not in words but in visual images, coincides precisely with Scout's moments of deepest insight and enables her to form conclusions which are, though sparsely articulated, central to our understanding of the novel.

For example, having witnessed and experienced profound confusion over the confrontation between Atticus and the lynch mob outside Tom Robinson's jail cell in chapter 16, Scout is “drifting into sleep” (156) when the “full meaning” of the night's events materializes before her. “The memory of Atticus calmly folding his newspaper and pushing back his hat became Atticus standing in the middle of an empty street, pushing back his glasses” (156). Establishing the link between Atticus defending the town from the “mad dog” and Atticus defending Tom Robinson from the lynch mob, Scout's visual metaphorical thought process, enabled by her semi-conscious state, is the nucleus of the novel's quite deep symbolic structure, a structure which continually stresses the role of Atticus as “defender” of Maycomb and Southern society from its own self-destructive urges.

Scout is again wavering between conscious and semi-conscious perception in Chapter 21, when she develops her previous metaphor by substituting the scene outside the Maycomb jail for that of the courtroom. She is “too tired to argue” (210) with Jem when he questions her understanding of the racial complexity of the Robinson case, but she discovers another and more profound concept. As she drifts into sleep, she describes, “an impression that was creeping into [her]” (210). Mentally transported in her dream-like state she “shivered, though the night was hot” (210). “A steaming summer night was no different from a winter morning” she understands, and in her semiconsciousness the street scene appears and the sensory impressions of the “mad dog” and courtroom dramas are merged. Accordingly, Heck Tate saying “take him, Mr. Finch” becomes Heck Tate saying “This court will come to order” (210).

Finally, as the novel comes to a close, Scout makes yet another thematically crucial connection, this time between an outside-of-text fictional narrative (and therefore an element of Lee's historical background) and the fictional events of the novel itself. Here Scout's sleep results from the soporific effect of the rain, the room's warmth and the deep voice of Atticus as he reads from “The Gray Ghost, by Seckatary Hawkins” (280). As she has throughout the novel, she awakes having internalized the sensed rather than perceived monologue, having made a text to text analogy, having responded deeply but not necessarily consciously to the hegemonic discourse surrounding her. Her interpretation of Stoner's Boy in The Gray Ghost, its meaning clearly shaped by the experiences she has recently had and is still in the process of retelling, illustrates an influence that is mutual, simultaneous, and only unified in the unconscious. Speaking of Stoner's Boy but using words that describe both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, she declares, “… when they finally saw him, he hadn't done any those things … Atticus, he was real nice” (281).

Lacan has been given credit for a restructured and reformulated “presentation of Freud's unconscious as symbolic and relational” (Ragland-Sullivan 70). Scout's semi conscious merging of texts across barriers of time and place presents a symbolic and relational translation of unconscious truth. Especially because in this novel they are so clearly rendered as the intersection of conscious and unconscious, these several examples of what I have called “text to text merging” provide a particularly apt metaphor for the relationship between historical text and imaginative literature in general as defined in the poststructuralist era. The only difference may be that while the historical mergings in the novel tend to be proleptic through their anticipation of later events and ideology from the fictionalized mid 1930s context, Scout's merging is anachronistic, reaching back in time to connect a past event to present meaning.

Lacan's description of the dream as “a way of remembering one's relationship to objects; a sign of exhaustion of regressions, and thus a threshold to the Real; a sign, therefore, of restructuring one's relationship to objects” (44) is the process Scout enacts, which is accurately “to know the moi” (a composite of Freud's ego), a process in which “one must read backward in spatial sense, but in the immediacy of present time” (Ragland-Sullivan 44). The dream is then “a temporal rewriting of history” (44) and the subject (in this case the narrator and authorial alter ego Scout) is “an unbridgeable gap between perceptions and alienation in relation to an external gestalt, an internal discourse, and Desire” (67). Our own “Western cultural bias—mistrust of image/object in favor of the word” (56) may predispose a skepticism toward both viewing events as texts and trusting the unconscious text of images over conscious, time-ordered and word-ordered “reality.” But Lacan's assertion that the “The je (the speaking or socially constructed subject) stabilizes the moi through naming and labeling” and “gives shape and form to the symbolic” (Ragland-Sullivan 59) also describes the interpretive enterprise with which Scout is frequently engaged. That the semi-conscious intrusions by the unconscious moi into the conscious je function in To Kill a Mockingbird in a way which deepens and broadens textual meaning does not conflict with their essential role as “disrupters of spoken or socially structured reality” (Ragland-Sullivan 61) or the constructed symbolic order. Furthermore, Lacan has suggested that “The task of learning who one is” is “preverbal” because “language slowly cuts the subject off from its prespeech fusions and naturalness (jouissance) and imprints the cultural myths which adults later assume they have consciously deduced or understood through a process of education” (61). This position not only describes the relation between the verbal and prediscursive reality as it exists in Lee's imaginative narrative, but also accurately depicts the author's own relation to the external gestalt of history, the internal discourse of fictional narrative, and Desire, which in this case may be described as Lee's attempt to locate the ideology of a narrative in one historical period while existing and therefore “always already” in a subject position in another. Lacanian critics have used the term “introjection” to describe “the process of acquiring identity in reference to objects, symbols, and effects of the outside world” (Sullivan 13), a process which takes place “prior to any awareness” (Ragland-Sullivan 22) and involves an “ambiguity of boundary distinctions” (36) including those of time and place, of which Lacan “emphasized the crucial importance” (35). A proleptic cross-historical merging of ideology is then the operant form of “introjection” that influences the composition process of the novel. It is worthwhile to note that Scout's revelations are rendered in the language of state of being, using linking rather than action verbs—the memory “became”—as would most properly present the kind of direct “equivocation” that here takes place and is replicated in the arrangement of the novel's historical ideology, which similarly equivocates meaning from the distinct historical periods, mixing as it does clearly identifiable elements of the novel's historical past and its period of production. Aptly then, unconscious, prediscursive processes are rendered in visual images and metaphors—as in the unconscious or dream state—rather than in words, as when we are awake and conscious. Through the metaphorical language of state of being, for example, Atticus in one scene or role “becomes” Atticus in another context which is physically different but ideologically identical. The effect, like the effect created by Lee's merging of historical texts, is synergistic.

Because it merges ideology from the 1930s and 1950s, author Harper Lee's presentation of the novel's historical “texts” works in the same way. The 1930s and the 1950s are in fact the contradictory discourses bringing to bear what Catherine Belsey refers to as “intolerable pressures” which inhibit the formation of a single and coherent subject position and a single and coherent position within historical ideology. Based on the given that texts are composed within what Stanley Fish refers to as a “material reality” or what Judith Lowder Newton calls “material conditions” which “alter the representation of representation itself” (Newton 162), it follows that the historical event or “text” as it appears in fiction necessarily presents a highly subjectivized version of history, governed as that presentation unavoidably is by principles of selection and interpretation either consciously or unconsciously at work in the author, but never completely absent. From an outline of a process of historical introjection in To Kill a Mockingbird, we are able to make generalizations that are paradigmatic about how a merging of historical discourses can operate within a form of representation (the novel structured within history) which is never completely imaginative or completely faithful to historical fact, never completely “one or the other,” never predictable in terms of its “zone of social transaction” and therefore always presenting a history that is partial, incomplete, and incapable of being accurately descriptive of any single historical period. Necessarily then, imaginative literature that is historically structured tells us as much about the relationship of ideology to material conditions and hegemony as it does about either its period of production or its historical present. I have attempted here to separate aspects of distinct discursive fields—those of the novel's historical present and its period of production—on the assumption that the clearly established discourse and material conditions of each contain revelations about both power and the relationship between historical and imaginative truth.

What requires recognition, however, is that because of its conflicting “material conditions” and the interplay of the two resultant and opposite processes of prolepsis and anachronism, the novel cannot actually be understood within or tied to any single or particular historical period. This would seem, of course, to be a “general truth” that would apply to all literature with any substantial internal historical structure, which is necessarily prejudiced in the most essential of ways by its moment of production, therefore presenting only a diluted version of its own ideology. The implied tasks for historicist readings then would seem to be to continue to work with texts in ways which acknowledge always that literary works are the product of more than one discourse or set of material conditions, and to search for concrete terms or strategies for answering the kind of historical questions that arise so frequently in literature as a result of this phenomenon.


  1. In August of 1955, fourteen-year-old Chicago native Emmett Till arrived in the Mississippi Delta to visit relatives in Tallahatchie County. On the evening of August 24, 1955, Till and his cousin Curtis Jones drove to a small grocery store run by Roy and Carolyn Bryant in the hamlet of Money. The initial incident is still the subject of debate. According to some accounts, he whistled at Carolyn Bryant. According to the testimony of Mrs. Bryant, Till grabbed her wrist and made a lewd suggestion before leaving the store.

    Early on the morning of Sunday, August 28, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam drove to the house of Till's uncle Preacher Moses Wright. There they demanded that Wright give up “the boy from Chicago.” As the men later admitted in a post-trial interview, they drove to a secluded spot, shot Emmet Till in the head, wired Till's body to a cotton gin fan, and threw the body in the Tallahatchie River.

    The murder trial took place in September of 1955. Though Moses Wright named in court the two white men who had taken Till from his shack, the all white, all-male jury acquitted Milam and Bryant after deliberating 67 minutes. (For detailed accounts of the trial, see Whitfield, Halberstam, Whitaker).

  2. Beyond the scope of this study but fascinating as an aspect of Lee's apparent response to Citizens Council racial theory and literature are the author's repeated allusions to Egypt and Egyptian civilization, including Jem's Chapter Seven “Egyptian phase,” references to the Rosetta Stone in chapter eight and the pyramids in Chapter One, several speculative passages about the Finch family's possible origins “back in Egypt” (227), and Jem's assertion that Egyptian civilization “accomplished more than the Americans ever did” (59). In the race language around the Brown decision, Egypt plays a role that is conclusively established by the widely distributed Bible of Citizens Council literature, “A Manual for Southerners,” which was written for schoolchildren in grades three and four and used in some Southern schools in 1957 and after. The text revives earlier discredited theories of “scientific racism,” including a preoccupation with Egyptian civilization as a distorted model for the effects of racial mixing or amalgamation:

    The first civilized nation in the world that we know about was Egypt. The Egyptian people of that time were pure white people. So you see that the white people built the first civilization on earth. These Egyptian people were careful to build a strong nation that they could be proud of. Even today we are surprised at some of the wonderful things they did.

    But about the time the Egyptians had built a wonderful country, they brought Negro slaves among them. It was not long before the Race-Mixers of those days began saying the slaves should be set free among the white Egyptians. And finally the Egyptians set the Negro free, cleaned him up, and taught him in their schools.

    Now you can already guess what happened to the Egyptian nation. Since the races were mixed, the people began marrying one another. Then the Egyptian race was no longer pure, and their nation was no longer strong. A mixed race is weak and all confused, and this makes the country weak, as we have already learned.

    (qtd. in Muse 174-175)

    That such ideology had made its way into the everyday racial lexicon of the post-Brown deep South is extremely likely. One interview from Robert Penn Warren's 1956 text, Segregation seems irrefutably to establish the presence of Citizens Council doctrine in the ready vocabulary of the typical Southerner. Modeling his argument almost verbatim on that contained in the Citizens Council “Manual,” the Southerner states, “Negro blood destroyed the civilization of Egypt, India, Phoenicia, Carthage, Greece, and it will destroy America!” (Warren 25).

    The degree of demonstrable concern in Lee's novel with questions not only of human origin but of breeding, social status and the maintenance of racial segregation is in itself a significant measure of the text's ideological orientation in the post-Brown decision era. But Lee's use of a strong pattern of allusion to Egypt seems a direct response to the propaganda of the Citizens Councils, and its presence in the novel again exemplifies the process of prolepsis at work in Lee's historical present.

  3. Jonathan M. Wiener, “The Black Beast Rapist: White Racial Attitudes in the Postwar South,” Reviews in American History 13 (June 1985): 224; George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 272-282.

  4. Claudia Durst Johnson has investigated connections between Lee's Robinson trial and the 1932-36 Scottsboro trials, which took place in Northern Alabama and involved allegations of gang rape of two white women by nine black men. “The central parallels between the novel and Scottsboro trials,” Johnson argues, “are three: the threat of lynching; the issue of a Southern jury's composition; and the intricate symbolic complications arising from the interweave of race and class when a lower-class white woman wrongfully accuses a black man or men” (5). Though the similarities Johnson notes are intriguing, they are also, I would argue, superficial in comparison to those herein noted and less compelling in terms of historical relevance. Born in 1926, Harper Lee was five years old at the time of the Scottsboro incident. As I have here suggested, the novel's most definitive historical milieu is the 1950s, and the Emmett Till case a more powerful register of the racial ideology of that period.

  5. Lee enrolled at the University of Alabama School of Law in 1947. She dedicated the novel to her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a Monroeville attorney who served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1927-1939, and to her sister, Alice Lee, also a practicing attorney. The novel's motto, “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once” (Charles Lamb), and the astute courtroom observations of its narrator also indicate a high level of legal knowledge and concern. Claudia Durst Johnson has noted that “the largest volume of criticism on the novel has been done by legal rather than literary scholars” (25).

  6. Jackson Clarion-Ledger, August 25, 1985, sec. H, p. 1; Huntsville Times, July 19, 1987, see. B. p. 1.

  7. Whitfield notes that this statement appeared in several Southern newspapers on or about Sep. 1-2, 1955 (18).

  8. See Whitaker's thesis.

  9. New York Times, September 18, 1955, p. 10; Wilkins quoted in Memphis Commercial Appeal, September 1, 1955, p. 1, 4; Jackson Daily News, September 2, 1955, p. 8.

  10. That the decision may be termed subversive has also been argued by Thomas Shaffer, a legal scholar who has published the most detailed research on the codification of legal ethics in the novel. In “Christian Lawyer Stories and American Legal Ethics” (Mercer Law Review, Spring 1982, 877-901), Shaffer concludes that Atticus' handling of the Radley intervention is wrong because he does not have Radley arrested.

  11. Claudia Carter details the development of Atticus' legal outlook into “a compassionate activism … a model we can emulate” (13).

Works Cited

Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London: Methuen, 1980.

Carter, Claudia A. “Lawyers as Heroes: The Compassionate Activism of a Fictional Attorney is a Model We Can Emulate.” Los Angeles Lawyer, July-August 1988, 13.

Dietch, Joseph. “Harper Lee: Novelist of the South.” The Christian Science Monitor 3 October 1961: C6.

Fish, Stanley. “Commentary: The Young and the Restless,” H. Aram Veeser, ed., The New Historicism. New York: Routledge, 1989. 303-16.

Greenblatt, Stephen Jay. “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion” in Glyph 8 (1981).

———. Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. New York and London: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1990.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1993.

Johnson, Claudia Durst. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1960.

Lowder Newton, Judith. “History as Usual? Feminism and the New Historicism,” in H. Aram Veeser, ed., The New Historicism, New York: Routledge, 1989. 152-76.

Muse, Benjamin. Ten Years of Prelude. New York: Viking P, 1964.

Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947.

Newby, I. A. “Introduction: Segregationist Thought Since 1890.” The Development of Segregationist Thought. I. A. Newby. Homewood, IL: Dorsey P, 1968.

Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie. Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Shaffer, Thomas L. “Christian Lawyer Stories and American Legal Ethics.” Mercer Law Review, Spring 1982, 877-901.

Sullivan, Richard. “Engrossing Novel of Rare Excellence” Chicago Tribune 17 July 1960, 15.

To Kill a Mockingbird Then and Now: A Thirty-fifth Anniversary Celebration. Host Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Sponsored by National Endowment for the Arts, 1995.

Waller, Ruth. “To Kill a Mockingbird” Montgomery Adviser 14 July 1960.

Warren, Robert Penn. Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the South. New York: Random House, 1956.

Wexler, Sanford. The Civil Rights Movement: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993.

Whitaker, Hugh Stephen: A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case. Unpublished thesis, Florida State University, 1963.

Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Joseph Crespino (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Crespino, Joseph. “The Strange Career of Atticus Finch.” Southern Cultures 6, no. 2 (summer 2000): 9-29.

[In the following essay, Crespino examines popular and critical responses to the representation of race and justice in To Kill a Mockingbird between the years 1960 and 2000.]

Contemporary debates concerning race in America owe much to the 1960s when African Americans and other minority groups gained basic legal protections and rights of citizenship denied them in the century following Reconstruction. The current offspring of this movement is multiculturalism, a term that encompasses a range of progressive educational techniques, policy recommendations, and social movements that celebrate racial and ethnic differences and seek to empower people to pursue goals of personal and communal freedom. One of the basic questions raised in the 1960s that reverberates in multiculturalism today is who in our society is allowed to speak authoritatively on racial issues. Over the course of the twentieth century, but particularly with the flowering of African American studies, the era in which white intellectuals debated the “Negro problem” among themselves has ended once and for all. In countless cultural productions and scholarly works from the civil rights era and more recent decades, African Americans are the subjects in the exploration of racial inequality in American history and life. And yet looming among the most popular and enduring works on racial matters since the 1960s is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the Depression-era account of Atticus Finch's legal defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, told through the eyes of Finch's nine-year-old daughter, Scout.

In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism. Published in the fall of 1960, the novel had already sold five hundred thousand copies and been translated into ten languages by the time it received the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The story was almost immediately snatched up by Hollywood, and the Alan Pakula-directed film had the double distinction of landing Gregory Peck an Oscar for his portrayal of Finch and giving Robert Duvall, with a brief role as the mysterious Boo Radley, the first of his seemingly countless screen appearances. It is estimated that by 1982 To Kill a Mockingbird had sold over fifteen million copies, and a 1991 American “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits” by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress revealed that next to the Bible the book was “most often cited in making a difference” in people's lives.1

The novel influenced a generation of Americans raised during the turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s. Former Clinton adviser James Carville, who spent his formative years in the 1960s South, reflected on Harper Lee's achievement: “I just knew, the minute I read it, that she was right and I had been wrong. I don't want to make it noble, or anything. I was just bored with all the talk of race.” Evidence of the novel's continuing influence on rising generations can be found on the internet, where dozens of high school and college chat groups discuss the adventures of the Finch children or debate the meaning of the Radley neighbors. Atticus Finch himself remains a touchstone figure of decency and respect. In the recent Democratic primary campaign in New Hampshire, Bill Bradley, in an effort to appear above ordinary political wrangling, posed in a rocking chair on the set of a theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird; one of his speech writers told reporters later that Bradley had been in his best “Atticus Finch” mode. Given this legacy, the dearth of critical commentary on the novel is surprising. Literary critic Eric Sundquist writes, “It is something of a mystery that the book has failed to arouse the antagonism now often prompted by another great novelistic depiction of the South … Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which arguably uses the word nigger with more conscious irony than does To Kill a Mockingbird and whose antebellum framework and moral complexity ought to be a far greater bulwark against revisionist denunciation.”2 A critique as basic as noting Atticus Finch's paternalism did not emerge until recently, and even then such a reading has been contested by Finch defenders.

The enduring career of To Kill a Mockingbird as a story of racial justice, and of Atticus Finch as a racial hero, reveals much about American racial politics in the second half of the twentieth century. From 1960s liberalism to 1990s multiculturalism, from the inchoate conservatism of Goldwater through that of the Reagan-Bush era, Atticus Finch has been both admired and scorned by liberals and conservatives alike. Tracing Atticus's place within the American imagination reveals some of the major fault lines in the struggle for racial equality over the past forty years and allows us to look again at how competing groups have framed racial issues in America.


The early success of To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus Finch's warm reception can be explained in part by the way Finch embodies what historians have called the “liberal consensus” of mid-twentieth-century America. With the defeat of the Depression at home and fascism abroad, postwar Americans were confident that democracy and western capitalism could answer basic questions of material need and class inequality that plagued the nation in prior decades. Among American historians, the generational change away from the concerns of Progressive historians, who emphasized conflict and inequality in American history, to the new focus on the “liberal tradition” reflected this consensus. Consensus historians described an adventurous but fundamentally conservative America in which liberalism marked the continuity between past and present.3

By the time of To Kill a Mockingbird's publication, civil rights had become an important part of the liberal consensus. The decades stretching from 1935, the year in which the novel was set, to 1960, the year in which it was published, witnessed several important modernizing trends that shaped the world in which Harper Lee wrote her first and only novel. By 1935 industrial expansion in northern cities, along with reduction in foreign immigration, had attracted a significant number of African Americans from rural areas of the South. This migration would expand in the years following World War II so that by 1960 as many African Americans lived outside the South as within it. Liberated from southern disenfranchisement, progressive, urban African Americans demanded that America address questions of racial inequality. African American representatives elected from these urban areas drew Congressional attention to racial issues, and legal battles in the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for later, more far-reaching decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education. With northern African Americans focusing attention on the South, northern whites could not continue to ignore the transgressions of southern segregation. The Scottsboro trial of the 1930s and the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 became causes célèbres that focused attention on southern discrimination. Undoubtedly, the Scottsboro trial's false accusations of rape influenced Harper Lee's depiction of Tom Robinson's trial.

Liberal trends within the American academy gave new attention to issues of race. In the 1930s and 1940s, southern racism was the focus of several prominent works echoed in Harper Lee's novel. Studies such as Charles Johnson's Shadow of the Plantation (1934), John Dollard's Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937), and W. J. Cash's The Mind of the South (1941) exposed the indignities of southern racism. The most influential contribution to racial liberalism was Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma (1944). An instant classic, Myrdal's 1,500-page study argued that the discrepancy between the egalitarian impulse of the “American Creed” and the oppressive treatment of African Americans presented a troubling dilemma for white America. Myrdal offered hope for an end to discrimination and predicted that the democratic rhetoric following World War II and the convergence of other social trends would force “fundamental changes in American race relations.”4

The Cold War also held important implications for the rise of American racial liberalism. By the end of World War II, the United States emerged as capitalism's primary defender in the fight against Soviet Communism. As the two superpowers competed for influence in the decolonizing areas of the globe, the rhetoric of American democratic liberalism became an important ideological weapon in the battle against what Americans saw as a repressive totalitarian state. The continued presence of legalized racial discrimination in the South was, of course, the glaring contradiction to American egalitarian rhetoric. The geopolitical demands of international diplomacy necessitated that the country incorporate the South into the American ideal by eradicating all vestiges of southern segregation.5

Much of the American South was insulated from these liberal trends, yet there were a small number of southerners influenced by the dominant intellectual developments of the day. Harper Lee was among this tiny minority of southern liberals in the 1950s South. A native of Monroeville, Alabama, which became the inspiration for the novel's fictional town of Maycomb, Lee attended a small women's college in Montgomery, Alabama, and later transferred to the University of Alabama where she completed her undergraduate studies and, in 1947, enrolled in law school. In October 1946, she contributed a one-act play to a university humor magazine satirizing a fundamentalist, racist politician of the kind who came to dominate southern political rhetoric in the age of massive resistance: “Our very lives are being threatened by the hordes of evildoers full of sin … SIN, my friends … who want to tear down all barriers of any kind between ourselves and our colored friends.” In the February 1947 issue she parodied country newspapers by creating the fictional Jacksassonian Democrat, whose logo included two white-sheeted figures carrying burning crosses. Lee's budding liberalism undoubtedly grew after she moved to New York, where she was active in the city's literary circles along with fellow aspiring writer and childhood friend, Truman Capote.6

Lee's characters and choice of narrative strategies in To Kill a Mockingbird reflect the moral tensions that all liberals faced in the Jim Crow South. They combine the passion and ambivalence characteristic of southerners drawn to the South's agrarian tradition and heritage but frustrated by the South's ugly racial history. Lee places Atticus Finch within the tradition of southern progressivism by linking him with the turn-of-the-century New South booster Henry Grady. Atticus advises Jem to read the speeches of Grady, who, if not a believer in the absolute equality of the races, was enough of a racial progressive to be despised by many white southerners of his day. Lee's political consciousness was formed during a period when the Georgia novelist Lillian Smith emerged as the most acerbic and outspoken liberal southerner. Smith's nonfiction work Killers of the Dream (1949) explored the deleterious effects of segregation on children and, like antilynching reformer Jesse Daniel Ames, exposed the links between racial and gender inequality.

Critical of the “paternalism” of liberals and their confusion of “the public rights of men with their private right to control their own personal relationships,” Smith was deeply committed to the liberal vision of racial change. She could well have been describing Atticus Finch when she wrote of liberals, “They are the carriers of the dream. They will make the future, or the human being will have none. For they and only they have held on to a belief that man is more than his institutions. It is they who refuse to let him become a slave to his own logic; who know that though he is his own end he never arrives there. And it is they who value his life.” Smith believed that racism was a moral and logical aberration, the glaring contradiction to the American egalitarian spirit. Optimistic that the South “can change quickly if given convincing reasons,” she was confident that liberalism would provide them.7

Smith and Lee shared similar visions of the southern racial landscape and its prospects for social change. Lee sardonically critiqued southern white womanhood through Scout's unwitting observations of the women's missionary circle, who discuss over tea the horrible plight of the Mruna tribe in Africa while remaining blind to the racial injustice in their own community. Similarly, Smith condemned southern white women who willingly participated in a society that glorified white womanhood at the expense of African Americans. Both writers shared similar limitations as well. Tom Robinson is sweetly innocent and naïve; Atticus feels a moral responsibility to defend him, as the novel's title attests, because a black man accused in the Jim Crow South was as helpless as a mockingbird. In the same way, Smith saw African Americans as innocent and helpless victims of rabid racism. Smith wrote that African Americans “were brought into our backyards and left there for generations”; she never conceived an active role for African Americans either in the creation of the modern South or in the abolition of racial segregation.8 Lee and Smith imagined a form of racial change that would occur through the leadership of people like Atticus Finch—in other words, through elite southern white liberals.

Though these limitations may seem obvious to readers today, if the northern press recognized To Kill a Mockingbird's paternalism they did not note it in their reviews. The book received widespread critical acclaim; reviewers praised the novel's liberal racial politics. The New York Times called the book a “level-headed plea for interracial understanding” and singled out Atticus Finch as “a highly esteemed lawyer and legislator and the embodiment of fearless integrity, magnanimity and common sense.” Harper's called Atticus Finch “an old-fashioned ‘hero’ if there ever was one,” adding that “Miss Lee has written a first novel which will satisfy all those … who are interested in the problems of the South to which there are no easy solutions.” While reviews in the Saturday Review and the Atlantic Monthly noted Lee's evident difficulty in telling a complex story while maintaining the narrative voice of a child, they praised Atticus Finch's “determination as a lawyer, liberal, and honest man, to defend a Negro accused of raping a white girl.” The Review wrote that Lee's “insight into Southern mores is impressive, and in Atticus she has done a notable portrait of a Southern liberal.”9

Reviews of the 1962 film version of the novel were similarly laudatory. The New York Times, though disappointed that the film did not capture more fully the range of emotions experienced by Scout and Jem, praised the role of Atticus, “played superbly by Gregory Peck.” Variety called the film “a significant, captivating and memorable picture that ranks with the best of recent years.” Peck's performance stood out in particular, especially for the Variety reviewer who praised his powers of transformation: “For Peck, it is an especially challenging role, requiring him to conceal his natural physical attractiveness yet project through a veneer of civilized restraint and resigned, rational compromise the fires of social indignation and humanitarian concern that burn within the character.” Clearly, the transition from page to film did not dim Atticus's liberal charm.10

The lone negative review appeared several months after the novel received the Pulitzer Prize. Elizabeth Lee Haselden remained unimpressed with the novel on the grounds that it failed to offer characters with which the reader could identify. She noted Atticus Finch's “Olympian wisdom and calm” and argued that the novel “depicts on the part of no one involved in the trial any inner struggle for an ethical answer to injustice, and is lacking in real compassion for people.” Haselden believed the book presented “character types” rather than real people with real struggles and suggested this quality as an explanation for the novel's success. “Acclaiming the merits of the book's theme, keeping the book on the best-seller list, soothes the public conscience,” wrote Haselden. “Thus the reader can witness to his concern about injustice-in-general, in some removed place, at a distant time, without feeling any personal sense of guilt or involvement in the extensions of injustice into our own time and place.” Haselden reveals the curious manner in which the novel succeeded in reducing complicated matters of regional difference, racial inequality, and social justice to simple moral tales of right versus wrong. Furthermore, her review provides evidence that at least one of the more perspicacious commentators of the early 1960s recognized the novel's place within the contemporary political moment. The very qualities that stretched Haselden's belief, such as Atticus's “Olympian calm,” were the characteristics that liberal America embraced. Liberalism held that southern racism was an obvious blight on the nation's conscience and should be fought with the level-headedness, moral equanimity, and common sense exemplified by Atticus Finch.11

Atticus's liberal pedigree comes through most clearly in his concern for his children. In a conversation with his brother, Atticus worries about the effect Tom Robinson's trial and Maycomb's racism will have on Jem and Scout. “You know what's going to happen as well as I do, Jack, and I hope and pray I can get Jem and Scout through it without bitterness, and most of all, without catching Maycomb's usual disease. Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don't pretend to understand. … I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town. I hope they trust me enough.”12 Atticus's puzzling over why people go “mad” and his concern with “Maycomb's usual disease” foreshadows the following scene in which Jem and Scout watch from the porch as their father shoots and kills a mad dog running loose on the street in front of the Finch home. The dog seems a likely symbol of white racism in the South. Up to this point, Scout and Jim think of their father as “feeble” because he was “nearly fifty” and did not play in the church football games. By shooting the dog, Atticus confirms his virility both as a father protecting his children and as a southern liberal dealing with white racism.

It is significant that Calpurnia, the Finch's domestic servant and the lone African American in the scene, is the one who alerts Atticus to the dog's presence and warns the all-white neighborhood to stay off the streets. In Calpurnia, Lee recognizes the role African Americans played in exposing white racism; through her Lee acknowledges the working-class African American civil rights protestors in the South who revealed the ugly face of Jim Crow to liberal America. While Lee does not entirely deny African Americans a place in the destruction of southern racism, in this scene their role is limited to that of warning the liberal white hero of the danger to come. As Finch bravely stops the mad dog in his tracks, Calpurnia watches on the porch with the children. It is also significant that Heck Tate, the Maycomb County sheriff, arrives with Atticus to stop the dog. Finch expects Sheriff Tate to shoot the dog, but the sheriff hesitates and then anxiously hands the gun to Finch: “For God's sake, Mr. Finch, look where he is! … I can't shoot that well and you know it!”13 Atticus, a crack shot as everyone in town but his children knows, finishes the responsibility. The figure of Heck Tate in this scene may well refer to the elected officials of the South, such as Arkansas governor Orville Faubus in Little Rock, who through fear, incompetence, or narrow-mindedness were unable to face down the mad dog of southern racism. Only Atticus possesses the skill and courage to put the rabid dog to rest.

Lee's vision of liberal racial change remained distinctly regional; Atticus Finch is not a wild-eyed reformer who rejects his southern heritage. Lee believed that racial change would come through liberalism refined by a certain understanding of how the world works—particularly how white southerners work when it comes to the explosive issue of race. When Jem, frustrated by Tom Robinson's conviction, suggests doing away with all juries, Atticus stops him. “Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom's jury, but you saw something come between them and reason,” Atticus tells Jem. “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.”14 Atticus understands that America's historic claim to justice and equality could not be realized without racial justice in the South, but he recognizes as well the extreme difficulties involved, given the prejudices of his region.

Similarly, Scout's precocious literacy becomes a symbol of southern liberals' competence in dealing with racism. At Scout's first day of school she encounters a recent college graduate schooled in what Jem mistakenly calls “the Dewey Decimal system,” Lee's reference it seems to pedagogical techniques developed by the northern, progressive educator John Dewey. In the first half of the twentieth century, Dewey had become one of the most prominent liberal members of the American academy. Lee's indirect reference to him here encapsulates her vision of the relationship between northern and southern liberalism. Scout does not need the new, “improved” pedagogical techniques of the young teacher; she knows how to read already. She was taught by her father, Atticus, the model of southern erudition. Scout's literacy here is a symbol of the South's ability to analyze its own problems, to deal with them in its own regionally specific way.

Part of Atticus Finch's heroic power lies in his ability to embrace the need and the moral imperative for racial change without rejecting his native South. He reminds Scout that though this time they were not fighting against “the Yankees, we're fighting our friends,” she should hold no grudges because “no matter how bitter things get, they're still our friends and this is still our home.” But in this scene Lee comforts white southerners fearful of the change that was imminent in the South. As Eric Sundquist writes, “Just as the South closed ranks against the nation at the outset of desegregation … so To Kill a Mockingbird carefully narrows the terms on which changed race relations are going to be brought about in the South.” Through Atticus Finch, Lee reassured anxious white southerners that civil rights change could come to the South peacefully, without bitterness, and without dividing the white southern community. After all, the southern liberals leading the change were longtime friends and neighbors; they were, first and foremost, southerners.15

At the same time, for readers North and South who admired the book's racial mores, Atticus represented the continuity of American values of justice and equality. The novel tells us that even in the Depression-era Jim Crow South, the era of Scottsboro and Bilbo, there existed within the South men like Atticus Finch who would be the seeds of the transformation to come. Atticus is a modern hero who, while embodying the most noble aspects of the southern tradition, also transcended the limits of that tradition and attained a liberal, morally rational racial viewpoint that was seen as quintessentially American.

Above all, Atticus's morality drives the novel, a morality that is as evident in To Kill a Mockingbird as it is in one of American liberalism's signature documents, the Supreme Court's majority decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Earl Warren's decision resonated with moral authority: “Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” In To Kill a Mockingbird Lee's decision to report Atticus's heroics through the perspective of his nine-year-old daughter is crucial in reinforcing the moral impulse that it is children who ultimately have the most at risk in the nation's struggle to end racial segregation. The project was to be carried out by good liberals like Atticus, but even then it was most effective because it was backed by the moral weight of a child's voice. This is the meaning of one of the novel's most famous scenes, in which Scout faces down a lynch mob that is ready to lynch Tom Robinson. As Sundquist writes, scenes such as this “are calculated to substantiate the ethical authority driving Brown.16


While To Kill a Mockingbird shows American racial liberalism in full flower, by the close of the 1960s the liberal assumptions of racial change had come under serious attack. With the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the last vestiges of southern segregation were legally destroyed and the Civil Rights movement moved north. Incidents of racial violence in Chicago suburbs and urban uprisings, like those in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, exposed the fallacy that racism was the South's problem. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, a committee headed by soon-to-be Vice-President Hubert Humphrey granted convention credentials to the traditional, all-white Mississippi state delegation over the racially integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Leaders of the Black Power movement would later point to this incident as exposing the essential bankruptcy of American liberalism.

Social movements such as Black Power were the American version of a larger global moment in which the basic tenets of modernist development came under attack. Black Power advocates identified with decolonization movements around the globe, and throughout the 1960s they mounted a devastating attack on American racial liberalism. In the classic statement of the movement, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (1967), Stokely Carmichael (who has since changed his name to Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton exposed the impotence of American racial liberalism in winning meaningful change for the vast majority of African Americans. They most likely had in mind as the object of their attack the most prominent southern liberal of their day, Lyndon Johnson, though their criticisms could be applied with equal force to Harper Lee's fictional southern lawyer. Black Power asked, “How fully can white people free themselves from the tug of the group position—free themselves not so much from overt racist attitudes in themselves as from a more subtle paternalism bred into them by the society, and perhaps more important, from the conditioned reaction of black people to their whiteness?”17To Kill a Mockingbird provided a classic scene of just this kind of black deference. The setting was the Maycomb County courtroom; as Atticus Finch passes below them, the segregated, all-black balcony stands in recognition of Atticus's efforts in defending Tom Robinson.

Black Power also questioned liberalism's assumption of American moral rectitude and its fundamentally bourgeois character. Invoking Myrdal, Carmichael and Hamilton wrote, “There is no ‘American dilemma,’ no moral hang-up … Black people should not base decisions on the assumption that a dilemma exists.” The liberalism represented by Atticus Finch viewed integration as the ultimate goal for the races, yet Black Power questioned whether such a goal could ever provide equality for a black minority: “The goal of black people must not be to assimilate into middle-class America, for the values of the middle class permit the perpetuation of the ravages of the black community. That class mouths its preference for a free, competitive society, while at the same time forcefully and even viciously denying to black people as a group the opportunity to compete.”18

Atticus's elite class position within the small southern town of Maycomb is an essential part of his heroism. Atticus is a paternal figure not only for blacks but poor whites as well. In a telling passage, Jem explains to his sister Maycomb's four different classes: “There's four kinds of folks in the world. There's the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there's the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.” While Scout denies these distinctions, she lives in a world clearly divided along class lines. Atticus explains to Jem, “You and Jean Louise … are not from run-of-the-mill people … you are the product of several generations' gentle breeding … and you should try to live up to your name.” Though they are both members of the white working class, the novel distinguishes between the Cunninghams and the Ewells based on the degree to which they aspire to bourgeois values—the degree to which they accommodate themselves to the hegemony of the dominant class. The young Walter Cunningham goes hungry rather than borrow money from the teacher that he knows he cannot pay back. Mr. Cunningham diligently pays back his legal debt to Atticus Finch through subsistence crops from his farm. Although Mr. Cunningham is a member of Tom Robinson's potential lynch mob, he politely retreats when faced by Scout's authentic moral presence. In contrast, the Ewells place no value on education, showing up the first day and never coming to school again. Mr. Ewell breaks the law by hunting out of season, and Mayella Ewell breaks the fundamental code of middle-class southern womanhood by desiring the black body of Tom Robinson.19

In the context of Black Power politics, one of the book's peripheral characters—Lula, the black-separatist member of Calpurnia's church—becomes one of its most interesting. Lula challenges Calpurnia for bringing the Finch children to worship at the black church: “You ain't got no business bringin' white chillun here—they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it, Miss Cal?” Lula reminds Cal that she is a servant to the Finches, not an equal: “Yeah, an' I reckon you's company at the Finch house durin' the week.” Calpurnia verbally spars with Lula in front of the church, reverting to an African American dialect that the children had never heard from her before. Lula mysteriously disappears from the scene, and the rest of the church comforts the children, telling them they should ignore Lula: “She's a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas an' haughty ways—we're mighty glad to have you all.” Lee uses this scene to reveal her expectations for what the proper African American response to the white presence should be. Lula objects to both the white children's freedom to enter the black world and the inordinate respect they receive once they are there. Lula's position in relation to Calpurnia reproduces Black Power's position toward African American liberals during the civil rights era. Lee removes all doubt as to which model white America prefers; as one critic observes, “Lee makes it clear that people like Lula are not what is expected in the Blacks who hope to be protected by the white law.”20

Despite its cogent critique of liberalism, Black Power failed to mount an enduring political movement that could advance African American interests. Government repression, accusations of reverse racism, and internal conflicts over issues such as sexism undoubtedly played a part in this failure. The breakup of American liberalism in the late 1960s made room for the American right to maneuver into cultural and political dominance. One example of this in racial politics was the conservative shift in the Supreme Court that led to decisions that pulled back from earlier liberal mandates. In the Bakke case the Court limited the reach of affirmative-action programs, and, in combination with other decisions, the Justices greatly qualified liberal commitments made in the previous decade. By the time of Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, American racial liberalism could hardly be heard from in an American political and cultural arena dominated by conservative voices. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton's record remained mixed. While his presidential commission on race generated discussions of race in American life at the highest levels of government, his administration triangulated not so much between the right and left as the right and center; the welfare bill he signed into law stands as one of conservatism's greatest victories over 1960s liberalism.

Although To Kill a Mockingbird has maintained its popularity as a modern-day race tale, in the aftermath of Black Power and with conservative ascendancy, both liberals and conservatives have become markedly more ambivalent in their views of Atticus Finch as an American racial hero. Certain school districts across the country have censored the novel for its sexual content, and more recently some have banned it because of its depiction of societal racism.21To Kill a Mockingbird has increasingly become a battleground where cultural critics from the left and right debate their respective views of contemporary racial politics. For example, a 1992 debate among legal scholars amounted to a public trial of Atticus Finch. Monroe Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University, wrote an article in Legal Times titled “Atticus Finch, Esq., R.I.P.” that questioned Finch's role as a model of humanity and morality for the legal profession. Freedman argued that as a state legislator and community leader in a segregated society, Finch was the “passive participant in that pervasive injustice.” Freedman would extend his comments later in a symposium at the University of Alabama: “Throughout his relatively comfortable and pleasant life in Maycomb, Atticus Finch knows about the grinding, ever-present humiliation and degradation of the black people of Maycomb; he tolerates it; and sometimes he even trivializes and condones it.”22 Freedman de-emphasizes the personal heroism of Finch to focus on the larger structural racism of which he was a part and which, in Freedman's estimation, he did little to combat.

Freedman's critique appalled many of his colleagues. One legal commentator attacked Freedman personally, pointing out the violence, abuse, and crime of Freedman's own hometown of New York and asking why he wasn't “putting [his] butt on the line for these people instead of criticizing Atticus Finch, who did put his butt on the line for an innocent black man.”23 In his eagerness to challenge notions of legal ethics, Freedman does ignore Finch's more commendable character traits, but the public outcry against his article suggests that something more was involved.

Many who objected argued that Freedman ignored Finch's individual act of racial heroism and its power to inspire similar acts today. In an article revealingly titled “Atticus Finch De Novo: In Defense of Gentlemen,” Timothy J. Dunn charged that Freedman underestimated “the value to the human spirit of acts of heroic value.” No less an authority than the president of the American Bar Association, Talbot D'Alemberte, rose in defense of Finch. “Sixty years after Judge Taylor appointed Atticus Finch to defend a poor black man in To Kill a Mockingbird, these … fictional heroes still inspire us,” wrote D'Alemberte. “Finch rose above racism and injustice to defend the principle that all men and women deserve their day in court.”24

Dunn and D'Alemberte defended Atticus Finch not just as a man ahead of his times, but as a model of decorum in the very sensitive arena of race relations. Yet their defense did not take into account the many differences between Atticus's era and the present. As Freedman pointed out, Atticus Finch acted heroically in 1930s segregated Alabama, but to a modern reader the limits of his heroism should be fairly evident. Racism today does not always rear its head in such blatant and perverse forms as it did in Depression-era Alabama. Even unreconstructed liberals, however, would admit that the discrimination of the Jim Crow South that American liberalism defeated in the 1950s and early 1960s did not end racism in America. Carmichael and Hamilton warned of liberal blindness to institutional racism, which “is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life.”25 At its core, the debate is over the nature of the racism at work in the post-civil rights era. If institutional racism survived the civil rights struggles of the mid-1960s, as the Black Power movement maintained, to what degree does holding up the model of Atticus Finch as racial hero obscure structural forms of racial discrimination?

Of course, one need not look in legal journals to find contemporary defenses of Atticus Finch. White lawyers who buck racial hostility and heroically defend African Americans have become one of Hollywood's stock figures. Films such as Mississippi Burning (1988), Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), and John Grisham's A Time to Kill (1996) present updated versions of Atticus Finch-style white racial heroism. Mindlessly following in the tradition of earlier courtroom racial blockbusters, Ghosts of Mississippi is largely about white assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter's fight to reopen the Medgar Evers's assassination case. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Maryanne Vollers that focuses much more clearly on Evers's life and work (DeLaughter is not mentioned until the twenty-second chapter). But Ghosts of Mississippi is more than another example in a long line of films that fail to do justice to a companion book. Its decision to place Bobby DeLaughter rather than Medgar Evers at the narrative center of the story is an affront to those who have struggled and continue to struggle to serve as the subject of their own narratives of liberation. As Variety reviewer Godfrey Cheshire wrote of Ghosts of Mississippi, “When future generations turn to this era's movies for an account of the struggles for racial justice in America, they'll learn the surprising lesson that such battles were fought by square-jawed white guys.”26

This is the strangeness of Atticus Finch's career: once a tool of liberal racial politics, Atticus has now become the pawn of racial conservatism. The right, in its insistence on focusing on racial bias on the personal level, glorifies Atticus Finch-style racial heroism. If racism exists only on an individual basis, then racial reform can occur only through individual moral reform—not through social or structural change that might challenge the legal, economic, or political status quo. As conservatives beatify the racial heroism of Atticus Finch, they fight the symptoms of the disease and fail to look for a cure that might get at the issue of white privilege.

How is it in a multicultural America that Atticus Finch and his various cinematic progeny continue to be held up as racial heroes? One explanation is that having a white racial hero at the center of the story allows the public to conceptualize race issues within an individual, moralistic framework. Movies traffic in stereotypes: racist rednecks, innocent black victims, white liberal heroes. Unfortunately, so do American politicians. White people solving the “American Dilemma” was the fundamental assumption of postwar racial liberalism; today application of the same principle underlies claims of reverse racism and forms the basis for conservative opposition to affirmative action and declarations of “the end of racism.” Ultimately, it is the belief that even though racism exists it cannot last because it is an aberration from American ideals of equality. Freedman's critique highlighted the structural racism of segregation-era Alabama but failed to link Finch to the obfuscation of white privilege that persists in America today. It should come as no surprise that when we place Atticus Finch under the lens of contemporary multicultural politics, we see the same symptoms that Black Power initially diagnosed in the sickness of American liberalism—a paternalistic and hopelessly moderated view of social change.

If multiculturalism is about racial and ethnic minority groups finding and using their own voices within American politics, there is also a segment of multiculturalism influenced by postmodern cultural critiques that objects to the idea of an essentialized, racial subject that is at the heart of minority group mobilization. Scholar and activist Cornell West has prevailed upon Americans concerned with issues of race, whatever race they may be, to deconstruct traditional American narratives of individual advancement and racial emancipation, particularly those which to this day persist with white males as their heroic protagonists. As West writes, “The new cultural criticism exposes and explodes the exclusions, blindnesses and silences of this past, calling from it racial libertarian and democratic projects that will create a better present and future.”27 The difficulty lies in realizing the practical political manifestation the new “libertarian and democratic projects” should take. How do they differ from the freedom movements of the 1960s? In West's case, with a personal charisma rooted in the oratorical traditions of the African American church, his activism is often hard to distinguish from that of the 1960s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The question of where Atticus Finch fits into this movement remains. My initial reaction is that the American social commentators who still invoke Atticus Finch's image, and the secondary school teachers who assign To Kill a Mockingbird in their classes year after year, should let Atticus come down from his perch as an emblem of American racial heroism. Harper Lee described her novel as “a simple love story”; while this element of the book cannot be separated from the novel's racial politics, one should not necessarily swim against the tide of Atticus's continuing popularity. This is a difficult thing to do because what one person sees as Finch's gentlemanly demeanor towards women another might characterize as sexist patronizing; what is decorum and self-restraint in racial matters to some may well seem small-minded and compromising to others.

My suggestion is that we reassign To Kill a Mockingbird from English class to history class and that rather than dismissing Atticus we deconstruct him. Certainly, we can no longer simply hold him up as a racial hero, for in a multicultural society that honors the dignity and agency of all people it is not clear what one would actually look like. But we can place Atticus alongside other members of the white liberal establishment, fictional and real, such as Lyndon Johnson, Gavin Stevens, Lillian Smith, Ralph McGill, and Gunnar Myrdal to name just a few. Like any good historian, we should historicize this group, celebrating their courage and success, lamenting the limits of their vision. We should teach students that racial liberalism played a part in ending a system of Jim Crow discrimination that had developed in the aftermath of emancipation; it also helped provide for equal political participation for African Americans, a phenomenon that, aside from a brief period during Reconstruction, this nation had never known. For all of its successes, however, the assumptions of American racial liberalism do not function well in contemporary America. The job for us today is to reconceptualize the problems of race by recognizing the continuing presence of white racial privilege and devising means of addressing it.


  1. Claudia D. Johnson, To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries (Twayne Publishers, 1994), xiii-xiv.

  2. Louis Menard, “Opening Moves,” New York Review of Books, 2 December 1999, 4; Garry Wills, “From the Campaign Trail: Clinton's Hell-Raiser,” New Yorker, 12 October 1992, 93; Eric Sundquist, “Blues for Atticus Finch,” in ed. Larry J. Griffin and Don H. Doyle, The South as an American Problem (University of Georgia Press, 1995), 181-209.

  3. John Higham, “The Cult of the ‘American Consensus’: Homogenizing Our History,” Commentary, 27 (January 1959): 93-100. For a fuller definition of the liberal consensus, see Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time (Vintage Books, 1978), 67-98; for an opposing view, see Gary Gerstle, “Race and the Myth of the Liberal Consensus,” Journal of American History, September 1995, 579-86.

  4. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Harper & Brothers, 1944), xix.

  5. See Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1992 (Hill and Wang, 1993), 3-60, and Numan V. Bartley, The New South, 1945-1980 (Louisiana State University Press, 1995), 38-73.

  6. Johnson, Threatening Boundaries, xii.

  7. Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (W. W. Norton, 1949), 244, 240.

  8. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (Warner Books, 1960), 227-37, 112.

  9. New York Times Book Review, 10 July 1960, 5; Harper's, August 1960, 101; Atlantic Monthly, August 1960, 98; Saturday Review, 23 July 1960, 15.

  10. New York Times Film Reviews, 15 February 1963, 3374; Variety, 12 December 1962, 6.

  11. Christian Century, 24 May 1961, 655.

  12. Lee, Mockingbird, 88.

  13. Ibid, 96.

  14. Ibid, 220.

  15. Ibid, 76; Sundquist, “Blues for Atticus Finch,” 194.

  16. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., 347 U.S. 494; Sundquist, “Blues for Atticus Finch,” 189.

  17. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (Vintage, 1967), 28.

  18. Ibid, 77, 40.

  19. Lee, Mockingbird, 229, 135-36.

  20. Ibid, 119; Teresa Godwin Phelps, “The Margins of Maycomb: A Rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird, Alabama Law Review, 45 (1994): 529.

  21. Johnson, Threatening Boundaries, 14-17.

  22. Monroe Freedman, “Atticus Finch, Esq., R.I.P.,” Legal Times, 24 February 1992, 20; Monroe Freedman, “Atticus Finch: Right and Wrong,” Alabama Law Review, 45 (1994): 479.

  23. R. Mason Barge, “Fictional Characters, Fictional Ethics”, Legal Times, 9 March 1992, 23.

  24. Timothy J. Dunn, “Atticus Finch De Novo: In Defense of Gentlemen,” New Jersey Law Journal, 27 April 1992, 24; Talbot D'Alemberte, “Remembering Atticus Finch's Pro Bono Legacy,” Legal Times, 6 April 1992, 26.

  25. Carmichael and Hamilton, Black Power, 4.

  26. Variety, 16 December 1996, 78.

  27. Cornell West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in ed. Steven Seidman, The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 79.

The author would like to thank Joel Beinin, Barton Bernstein, George Fredrickson, Ted Ownby, Amy Robinson, and Eric Sundquist for their help in preparing this paper.

Tim Dare (essay date April 2001)

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SOURCE: Dare, Tim. “Lawyers, Ethics, and To Kill a Mockingbird.Philosophy and Literature 25, no. 1 (April 2001): 127-41.

[In the following essay, Dare discusses the issue of moral responsibility in the legal profession in terms of ethical and moral philosophy, and evaluates whether or not the character of Atticus Finch serves as a positive role model for lawyers.]


Lawyers are widely thought to be callous, self-serving, devious, and indifferent to justice, truth, and the public good. The law profession could do with a hero, and some think Atticus Finch of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird fits the bill.1 Claudia Carver, for instance, urging lawyers to adopt Atticus as a role model, writes: “I had lots of heroes when growing up. … Only one remains very much ‘alive’ for me. … Atticus made me believe in lawyer heroes.”2 Not everyone endorses Atticus's nomination. Most influentially, Monroe Freedman argues that Atticus is hardly admirable since, as a state legislator and community leader in a segregated society, he lives “his own life as the passive participant in that pervasive injustice.”3

Although there is plainly disagreement between Freedman and his opponents, there is also an important point of consensus. Both sides to the debate accept that Atticus's suitability as a role model is settled by his character. Freedman argues that Atticus should not be a role model because he is not the admirable figure he is made out to be: appointed counsel to an unpopular defendant, Atticus admits that he had hoped “to get through life without a case of this kind” (p. 98). He excuses the leader of a lynch mob as “basically a good man” who “just has his blind spots along with the rest of us” (p. 173). He sees that “one of these days we're going to pay the bill” for racism, but hopes that payment, and so justice for blacks, will not come during his children's life times (pp. 243-44).4 On the other hand, a leading Atticus supporter, Thomas Shaffer, argues that Atticus shows us precisely that what matters in professional ethics is character rather than moral principle:

One thing you could say about Atticus is that he had character. … We say that a good person has character, but we do not mean to say only that he believes in discernible moral principles and, under those principles, makes good decisions. We mean also to say something about who he is and to relate who he is to his good decisions. When discussion proceeds in this way, principles need not even be explicit. We can say, “How would Atticus see this situation?” or “What would Atticus do” rather than, “What principles apply?”5

So understood, the debate about Atticus connects with the recent resurrection of virtue ethics and with concomitant suggestions that a virtue or character-based ethics might provide a particularly promising approach to professional ethics in general and to legal ethics in particular.

In the following essay, I argue that this character-based appeal to Atticus is misplaced. Although Atticus can teach us important lessons, they are not about the priority of virtue or character. Neither side to the debate has Atticus quite right. Sorting out what it is about him that makes him an appropriate or inappropriate role model for lawyers will both enrich our appreciation of a fine novel and further our understanding of what it is to be an ethical lawyer. More generally, my analysis will suggest that virtue ethics has little to offer toward an understanding of the moral responsibility of lawyers.


In brief, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, for the rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell, in racist Alabama in the 1930s. Appointed to defend Robinson, Atticus Finch takes the task seriously, drawing upon himself and his children the slurs and taunts of neighbors. At trial he proves that Robinson could not have raped Mayella, showing that her attacker was left-handed with two good arms, whereas Robinson had lost the use of his left arm in a cotton-gin accident. Robinson is convicted nonetheless. The verdict does not surprise Atticus. Racism, “Maycomb's usual disease” (p. 98), has made it a forgone conclusion. Indeed, shortly afterward, Tom is killed, shot while climbing a prison fence in full view of guards. Tom's death completes one story in Mockingbird: an innocent black man has been falsely accused, wrongfully convicted, and killed.

“Tom's story” occurs in the middle parts of the novel, flanked by another focussing on the Finch's mysterious neighbor, Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley. Boo has been a recluse inside his family's house for close to twenty-five years, unseen for ten years since stabbing his father with a pair of scissors. The children regard him as a bogeyman, and play what seem to them dangerous games of brinkmanship with him. The reader knows that the children are mistaken about Boo. He is a gentle person: he leaves gifts for the children; he wraps a blanket around Scout as she watches a fire in the cold; he attempts to mend the trousers Jem has torn and abandoned in flight from a raid on the Radley property.

Tom and Boo's stories come together at the end of the novel. Mayella's father, Bob Ewell, attacks the Finch children. They are rescued by Boo, who kills Ewell. In an important moment for my account of the novel, Atticus goes along with the Sheriff's recommendation not to charge Boo over Ewell's death. Instead, Atticus and the Sheriff adopt the fiction that Ewell fell on his knife.

Atticus's daughter Scout narrates Mockingbird, and the novel is also the story of her moral development. Her innocence is a crucial aspect of the narration, highlighting the senseless racism and class divisions that rend Maycomb. Scout's innocence wanes during the course of the novel, but it gives way to informed goodness rather than prejudice, a transformation most evident in her attitude to Boo. At the beginning of the story, she regards him as an outsider and misfit, legitimately tormented and feared. The novel closes with her taking his hand to lead him home and seeing that things look the same from the Radley porch as they do from her own.

Much of the credit for Scout's moral development is owed to Atticus. He is a loving, patient, and understanding father who guides his children to virtue while respecting them as individuals capable of judgment and decision. He teaches them compassion and tolerance, frequently advising Scout to “step into the shoes” of others such as the Ewells and Boo Radley. Atticus treats everybody with respect, regardless of class or color. He is courageous, both in zealously pursuing Tom's defense while knowing that it will not succeed and in arming himself only with a newspaper though anticipating a confrontation with a lynch mob. In sum, Atticus's is a voice of decency, wisdom, and reason, courageously speaking out against bigotry, ignorance, and prejudice.


There are three moments in Mockingbird of particular significance for lawyers and legal ethics. The first is Atticus's summation to Tom's jury. One often hears, he remarks, that all men are created equal. On some construals, the assertion is simply ridiculous: people are not born equally smart or equally wealthy. Nevertheless, says Atticus:

… there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. … Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

(p. 227)

This is as plain a statement of the role of courts as one could hope for. Whatever inequities people suffer outside the court, within it, they are to be treated as equals.

The second moment occurs after Tom's death. Mr. Underwood, the editor of the local newspaper, has published a courageous editorial condemning the death as sinful and senseless, likening it to the “slaughter of songbirds” (p. 265). Initially, Scout is puzzled by the editorial: how could Tom's death be sinful when he had been granted due process and vigorously defended in an open court? But then, she continues, “Mr. Underwood's meaning became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed” (p. 266). Again, the meaning of the passage seems clear: Tom was convicted because he had been tried not in a court of law but “in the secret courts of men's hearts.” These courts were governed not by presumptions of equality and innocence, but by prejudice and bigotry. Atticus's plea to the jury had been ignored and Tom had been convicted and killed as a result.

In his summation, Atticus makes clear his commitment to the ideal of the rule of law, understood precisely as rule by public standards rather than by the private wishes and inclinations of individuals. Scout's explication of Mr. Underwood's editorial further emphasizes that commitment. An innocent man has died because a jury chose to try him by their own standards rather than by those of the public system of law. Thus far, the message of Mockingbird is one in favor of the rule of law. Lawyers should honor and protect the public judgments of courts in preference to and from the private judgments of individuals.

The third great moment occurs after Boo Radley rescues Atticus's children from Bob Ewell. Initially, all that is clear is that the children have been attacked and that their attacker lies dead. Atticus thinks that Jem has killed Ewell, wresting a knife away during the attack. He takes it for granted that Jem will go before a court, though he will be acquitted since “it was clear cut self-defense” (p. 300). Sheriff Tate interrupts, telling Atticus that Jem did not stab Ewell, that he fell on his own knife. Atticus assumes Tate is trying to hush up what has happened to protect Jem, and refuses to go along with the subterfuge. But soon Atticus realizes that it is Boo, not Jem, who the Sheriff is trying to protect. It would, Tate maintains, be a sin to bring Boo “and his shy ways” before a court. Atticus sits, looking at the floor for a long time before finally raising his head and saying to Scout, “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?” Scout's response demonstrates that she understands perfectly well: there has been a decision to accept a fiction. “Yes sir,” she says, “I understand. … Mr. Tate was right. … Well, it'd be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?” (p. 304).

These three episodes pose an obvious challenge. The first two deliver a clear message in favor of the rule of law, put quite specifically as a warning about the danger of deciding upon guilt or innocence in the “secret courts of men's hearts.” But this seems to be exactly what Atticus countenances in the final episode. Atticus and the Sheriff have decided that Boo should be spared a trial. They have tried him in the secret courts of their hearts and declared him innocent, and Scout endorses their decision: to try Boo would be like shooting a mockingbird. What was a wicked thing in Tom's case is a good thing in Boo's case.


The ethical contradiction has not gone unnoticed, and some commentators have been mildly critical. For the most part, however, both Atticus's summation and his decision to spare Boo have been applauded. Indeed, the apparent inconsistency between the two episodes is taken to show Atticus's praiseworthy character and his laudable attitude toward the law. Claudia Johnson writes at length of Atticus's respect for law, before commenting that “despite [this] … he believes that reason must prevail when law violates reason. … In the case of Boo Radley's killing of Bob Ewell, law is proven inadequate, because on occasion reason dictates that laws and boundaries must be overridden for justice to be done.”6 And, although he thinks Atticus made a mistake over Ewell's death, Shaffer does not think the mistake diminishes Atticus as a hero, but that it shows us precisely “how a good man makes a doubtful choice” and demonstrates “that more is involved than whether the choice is sound in principle.”7 These commentators take the importance of Mockingbird to lie in its demonstration of the centrality of character in professional ethics. In effect, they render Atticus's conduct consistent by subsuming it under the notion of “judgment.” His conduct may well be inconsistent when viewed from the perspective of this or that general principle or rule of right conduct, but such a method just shows the inadequacy of principle or rule-governed approaches to ethical conduct.8

Assessments of Atticus that elevate judgment over principle reflect wider developments in contemporary ethics and moral philosophy, which have, strikingly, rediscovered Aristotle. At the heart of this renaissance is the idea that moral deliberation and justification cannot proceed deductively through the application of general principles to particular cases. Aristotle supposes that the phenomena with which ethical inquiry is concerned is marked by mutability, indeterminacy, and particularity such that they can never be subsumed under general principles of right action unproblematically. His view of the limitations of general principles of right action led him to stress the importance of “practical judgment” (phronesis), a practical reasoning skill which is neither a matter of simply applying general principles to particular cases nor of mere intuition. Both general principles and the particularities of a case play a role in phronesis which thus emphasizes judgment and brings the character of the practical reasoner to center stage. We cannot look to general principles to settle what is the right thing to do, hence we must look to the character—or virtues—of those doing the judging.9

Atticus supporters present him as the phronimos, an expert practical reasoner sensitive both to general principles and the particularities of cases. Atticus is one who knows what to do not by applying general principles, but by being the sort of person he is, by having the sort of character he has. Atticus recognizes that confining himself to general principles, such as those he defended at Tom's trial, would be a recipe for obtuseness.


I am not convinced that Atticus is an appropriate ethical role model for lawyers. He fails not, as Monroe Freedman would have it, because his character makes him unsuited to the role, but because the character approach itself is unable to provide an appropriate grounding for the ethical obligations of lawyers and similar professionals. That is Atticus's lesson for us. My starting point is a reiteration of the challenge posed by the three episodes set out above. Atticus's defenders, we have seen, respond to that challenge by subsuming Atticus's conduct under the notion of “judgment.” His conduct may well be inconsistent when viewed from the perspective of this or that general principle or rule of right conduct, but this just shows the inadequacy of principle or rule-governed approaches to ethical conduct. I think there are textual difficulties with this reading, but will not dwell on them here. Instead, I will offer what I think is a more natural reading of Atticus's conduct.

We seek an interpretation of Atticus's conduct that renders it, if not consistent, at least coherent. We have such a reading if we regard Atticus as a tragic figure. Mockingbird has at least some elements of tragedy: an innocent man (Tom) falls victim to evil despite the best efforts of the novel's hero. Atticus's story too is tragic. Regarding the rule of law as tremendously important, he presents his arguments in its favor to the jury with passion and all of his professional ability, recognizing that the life of an innocent man rests upon his success. But he fails, and Tom dies. When a decision over Boo is required, Atticus is struck by the similarities between the cases. Both Tom and Boo are mockingbirds: innocents who it would be sinful to harm. Both Tom and Boo are ‘outsiders’; Tom because he is black and Boo because he is a handicapped recluse, isolated from the dominant community. Each must rely upon the dominant community to ignore the fact that they are outsiders. In Tom's case, the community does not do so. When Boo kills Bob Ewell, Atticus, cast as protector of both men, must decide whether he will allow another outsider to face the same threat. Confronted with the possibility of another tragedy, Atticus's faith in the rule of law, and perhaps his courage as well, fail him. He cannot bear the possibility that he will be party to the death of another mockingbird.

In the end, Atticus abandons the principles that determined his self-understanding, secured his unique and valuable position in Maycomb, and received his passionate defense. That is the stuff of tragedy: a principled man has come to doubt the adequacy of principles by which he understands himself and abandons those principles. Whether or not it is wicked to try people in the secret courts of men's hearts now depends upon which men's hearts. Hence we need not strain for a reading which makes Atticus's conduct consistent: it is not consistent. Atticus is not throughout the phronimos, an eye firmly on substantive principles of justice and fairness, but a more human figure. Tragically though understandably, he is not prepared to risk a vulnerable person effectively in his care, having so recently seen how his legal system mistreated another similarly placed outsider.

The point of interpreting Atticus as a tragic figure is not to brand him as less than admirable and therefore as an unsuitable role model. Instead, this interpretation contrasts with that which portrays him as the phronimos and provides an alternative to the assumption shared by both sides of the debate that his significance for legal ethics is to be settled by reference to his character. Cast as a tragic figure, Atticus yields a very different message than that which he conveys as a wise figure. We are not meant to admire what he does but to be struck by the gravity of his loss. Viewed as a tragic figure, his message is one about the value of the principles he has abandoned, not one about the desirability of regarding them as disposable, trivial, or burdensome.


A tenacious Atticus supporter might claim that even if Atticus did abandon the principles he defended in Tom's case, the decision to do so was a wise one, and does not show Atticus to have acted other than as the phronimos. However, there are reasons to reject this assessment. Some of these reasons are specific to Boo's case: they undercut the claim that Atticus's decision in Boo's case was a wise one. I begin with these Boo-specific issues.

Perhaps the most striking Boo-specific feature in this context is the fate from which Atticus and Sheriff Tate are attempting to save Boo. In portraying Atticus as a tragic figure, I suggested that he could not bear the thought of being party to the death of another mockingbird. The talk is warranted from Atticus's point of view. It explains why Scout speaks so effectively when she likens putting Boo on trial to “shootin' a mockingbird.” However, it is rhetorical. No one seems to think Boo will really suffer Tom's fate. They take it for granted that he will be acquitted. The worst Sheriff Tate can imagine for Boo is that he will be besieged by grateful Maycomb ladies bearing angel food cakes (p. 304)! Plainly, this is not a trivial matter for Boo and his shy ways. Surely, however, it cannot be sufficient to warrant rejection of what on any reading of the novel is a fundamental principle of justice.

There are other factors that cast doubt on the wisdom of Atticus's decision. There is no consideration of how the decision will seem to other members of the community. No middle grounds are canvassed—there is no discussion of the possibility of putting Boo on trial and forbidding the Maycomb ladies from bombarding him with angel food cakes. Further, by the time of the episodes recounted in Mockingbird, Boo has been held in his family home for some twenty-five years. Might not Boo have been better served by giving him his day in court, bringing him out of the shadowy world he had occupied for so long? Surely one need not be terribly hard-hearted to think that the local community had an interest in knowing that someone with Boo's history had been about with a honed kitchen knife with which he had dispatched Bob Ewell, no matter how much Ewell deserved his fate or how clearly Boo had merely been trying to prevent a crime.

This is to suggest that Atticus makes a mistake in Boo's case, putting aside too easily fundamental principles in the face of insufficiently countervailing considerations. It is not hard to see why he does so. I have suggested that Atticus's deliberations about Boo are dominated by his experience in Tom's case and, in particular, by the perception that Boo, like Tom, is a vulnerable outsider. But Boo is a very different sort of outsider than Tom, and the difference is both plain and important. We see it illustrated starkly in the Sheriff's responses to Boo and Tom. After a somewhat perfunctory investigation of each episode, he immediately arrests Tom, with no apparent qualms about the reliability of the Ewells' accusation. Yet he decides on the spot to adopt a fiction to spare Boo a trial, evidencing sensitivity to Boo quite absent from his dealings with Tom. The Sheriff's apparent change of heart shows clearly that Boo, at least compared to Bob Ewell, is a privileged outsider, and Atticus seems not to have noticed this or to have given it too little weight. The second obvious explanation for Atticus's lapse is the involvement of his own children in Boo's case. His gratitude to the man who saved his children is surely understandable, and one can see why he would be loathe to insist that his children's rescuer be put through the ordeal of a trial and displays of public gratitude. But the involvement of his children should have led Atticus to be especially careful about trying Boo in the secret court of his own heart.

Hence, we might wonder whether Atticus gets it right in Boo's case. We have seen that Shaffer also describes Atticus's decision to spare Boo as a mistake, albeit one that reminds us of the importance of character. But I think that Sheriff Tate has it right when he says, “Mr. Finch I hate to fight you when you're like this. You've been under a strain tonight no man should ever have to go through. Why you ain't in bed from it I don't know. But I do know that for once you haven't been able to put two and two together. …” (p. 303).

This reading of Atticus's decision in Boo's case supports the interpretation of him as a tragic figure. He makes a poor decision in Boo's case because his focus on the common themes in the cases prevents him from paying sufficient detail to the particularities of Boo's situation. It is difficult to believe the details would not have moved a wise-Atticus, but we would expect a tragic-Atticus to respond just as Atticus Finch does respond. This account also reveals the flaws of the character approach. If even Atticus cannot avoid the sort of understandable cognitive dissonance that seems to mark his deliberations in Boo's case, we should favor an alternative approach that places less emphasis upon the particular judgments of individuals. A rule or principle-based approach, though not eliminating the need for judgement, is such an alternative.

There is another point to be drawn from this discussion. Behind much of it has been the idea that the decision to spare Boo a trial may have been reasonable had there been a genuine risk that Boo would have suffered Tom's fate. I have suggested that the facts of Boo's case simply do not support that conclusion. But suppose for a moment that a Maycomb jury would have unjustly convicted him of wrongdoing in the death of Bob Ewell. The supposition renders Mockingbird the story of a legal system in crisis. We may think, indeed, that Tom's fate alone is enough to show that this is just what Mockingbird is. But what would its lesson be if this were correct? Not that identified by Atticus's defenders. Rather, assuming that Mockingbird is the story of a system in crisis, its lesson is that lawyers should not admire and emulate Atticus's alleged attitude to rules and principles. For on the reading of the novel which portrays it as the story of a legal system in crisis, it is precisely the jury's disregard for these constraints which generates the crisis. Here, once again, Atticus's lesson for us would be about the importance of rules and principles, not about their triviality.


I remarked that there were two sorts of reasons to doubt that Atticus's decision in Boo's case was a wise one, some specific to Boo's case and others of more general import. I turn to the reasons of the second sort. As well as bearing again upon the question of Atticus's wisdom in Boo's case, these are reasons to think that we should reject the character approach to legal ethics itself.

I begin with an account of the nature and function of law. One of Atticus's most important moral lessons to his children is that of tolerance and appreciation of difference. Here Atticus gestures at what has been described as the problem of political liberalism: “How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just community of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrine?”10 A central part of the liberal response to this question has been the establishment of procedures and institutions that aspire to an ideal of neutrality between reasonable views represented in the communities to which they apply. The members of pluralist communities will often be able to agree on the structure of neutral institutions and practices even when they cannot agree on the right outcome of a policy question as a substantive matter. Of course, these institutions and practices cannot guarantee outcomes which will suit all the reasonable views: often there will be no such universally acceptable outcomes. The hope of liberalism, however, is that even those whose substantive preferences do not win the day on this or that occasion will have cause to accept the decisions of these institutions as fair and just. At the very least, they must have reason to believe that their views have been taken seriously and that the decision procedures have not simply turned the individual preferences of some members of the community into public policy.

Precisely these sorts of general political concerns lie behind the requirement that individuals are to be tried by public standards in public courts rather than by private or secret tribunals. Why object to trials in the secret courts of men's hearts? Not only because we are worried about whether or not we have the right men's hearts, but also because a crucial part of the role of law in pluralist communities is to allow individuals to see the mechanisms by which public decisions are made and to see that those mechanisms have indeed been used. Liberal community so understood is undercut by those who insist upon appeal to their own substantive views of the good rather than to public procedures.

Atticus has it right in his summation to the jury. A commitment to tolerance and equality leads to decision procedures that render trial within the secret courts of men's hearts illegitimate. Atticus's decision to spare Boo a public trial is a mistake not just because it fails to take account of the particular facts of Boo's case, but because it undercuts the role of law in securing community between people who hold a range of diverse and reasonable views. This view about the role of law in pluralist societies has consequences for the ethical obligations of lawyers. They act improperly when they substitute their own judgments for those of the procedures, acceptance of which makes pluralist community possible. An appreciation of the role of law should lead us away from rather than toward a character-based approach to legal ethics. The issue is not whether we have the right men's hearts, but whether any individual's heart will do.

This discussion provides a response to a recent and important contribution to the legal ethics debate. Anthony Kronman has argued that the legal profession is in the grips of “a spiritual crisis that strikes at the heart of [the lawyer's] professional pride” and threatens the very soul of the profession itself.11 The crisis has resulted from the demise of a two-hundred-year-old professional ideal—that of the lawyer-statesman—which envisioned the outstanding lawyer as the phronimos: not a mere technician but a person of practical wisdom possessed of a range of honorable and more or less peculiarly legal character traits. Without this ideal, lawyers have come to regard law as an essentially technical discipline, requiring no particular character or virtue on the part of its leading practitioners, judges, and teachers.

As the lawyer-statesman epithet suggests, Kronman takes lawyers to have a significant leadership role. In the political sphere, the lawyer-statesman seeks a certain kind of political integrity, namely one that obtains despite the existence of significant and ineradicable conflict. The lawyer-statesman directs us to a condition of political wholeness in which “the members of a community are joined by bonds of sympathy, despite the differences of opinion that set them apart on questions concerning the ends, and hence the identity, of their community.”12

The discussion of the role of law and lawyers given above provides a better account of these matters. There are a couple of points. First, the ‘procedural’ story is directed precisely at securing political community in the face of ongoing substantive dispute. The neutral institutions of political liberalism aim to give us ways of going on as a community which assure even those whose personal preferences have failed to carry the day that neither they nor their views have been ignored. Law is an essential part of the effort to secure stable and just political community between the advocates of diverse views of the good. Second, the procedural approach provides a response to Kronman's spiritual crisis as well: on the procedural account the various law jobs are extraordinarily important in pluralist communities and hence are ones in which lawyers can and should take pride. One might think, indeed, that some such story would be a source of considerably more comfort to lawyers than Kronman's—it tells them, after all, that what most of them are doing most of the time has moral and political value.


There are also reasons to be wary of character-based approaches to legal ethics that focus not upon the political or social significance of law in general, but upon the nature of lawyer-client relationships. We can relate these concerns to Mockingbird by noting a difference between Atticus's position and that of most contemporary lawyers. Mockingbird is importantly the story of an intimate community. A good deal of the book is concerned to place Atticus and his family within Maycomb, to show how he and his forebears came to the town, to show that the neighbors and the community know him well. Consequently, Atticus's professional relationships have much in common with relationships between family members or friends. In these latter relationships our intimate knowledge of the individual allows us to make assessments of the character of the person to whom we are vulnerable—of their motivations, their priorities and so forth—which explain our willingness to place ourselves in their hands. However, we do not have this sort of detailed knowledge of the character of our professionals. Hence we cannot rely upon their character as we rely upon the character of friends. The result is that the character aspect of the virtues approach makes it inappropriate for professional and legal ethics. Clients just do not have access to information about the character of their professionals that would make it reasonable to place themselves in positions of vulnerability in reliance upon character-based considerations.13

Given this analysis of professional-client relations, it is important not only that professionals are ethical, but that clients and potential clients have some way of knowing the ethical stance of practitioners even though they do not know them or their moral views personally. The adoption and promulgation of a distinct professional morality makes the ethics of the profession public in a way that the personal ethics of its members cannot be. Clients get the benefit of this public ethics, however, only if it is indeed given priority over personal ethical views in members' dealings with the public. Given this, to know what values at least should govern the professional's conduct, the client need only know what values the professional role requires the professional to adopt and that the professional is a role-occupant. In a different world, perhaps one characterized by the positive communal aspects of life in Maycomb, we may not need these guides to the ethical views of our professionals. However, Maycomb, both thankfully and sadly, is not our world.


In sum, Atticus does have an important lesson for professional and legal ethics, but not one about the importance of character over rules and principles. On the contrary, Atticus allows us to see the importance of the principles of law he defends so eloquently in Tom's case and abandons so tragically in Boo's case. In doing so, he shows why we cannot found an adequate professional ethic on the character of practitioners. Character approaches make it less rather than more likely that professionals will fulfill the ethical obligations appropriate to their roles. Atticus's lesson is not that lawyers should throw over rule- and principle-based models of professional ethical obligation, but that they should be brought to appreciate the significance of the social roles they serve, and to understand and take pride in fulfilling the duties which flow from those roles.


  1. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (London: Heinemann, 1960). Subsequent references appear in parentheses in the text.

  2. Claudia A. Carver “Lawyers as Heroes: The Compassionate Activism of a Fictional Attorney is a Model we can Emulate,” Los Angeles Lawyer (July-August, 1988).

  3. Monroe Freedman, “Atticus Finch, Esq., R.I.P.,” Legal Times, 24 February 1992.

  4. Monroe Freedman, “Atticus Finch—Right and Wrong,” Alabama Law Review 45 (1994): 473-82. This volume contains a symposium on To Kill a Mockingbird and legal ethics.

  5. Thomas L. Shaffer, Faith and the Professions (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1987), p. 5.

  6. Claudia Johnson, “Without Tradition and Within Reason: Judge Horton and Atticus Finch in Court,” Alabama Law Review 45 (1994): 483-510, 499. See also Timothy Hall, “Moral Character, the Practice of Law and Legal Education,” Mississippi Law Review (1990): 511-25.

  7. Thomas L. Shaffer, “The Moral Theology of Atticus Finch,” University of Pittsburgh Law Review 41 (1981): 181-224, 196.

  8. For other applications of virtue ethics to the legal profession, see Anthony Kronman, The Lost Lawyer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1993), discussed below, and Gerald Postema, “Moral Responsibility in Professional Ethics,” New York University Law Review 55 (1980): 63-89.

  9. See, for instance, John McDowell writing that “one knows what to do (if one does) not by applying universal principles but by being a certain sort of person: one who sees situations in a certain way.” “Virtue and Reason,” The Monist 62 (1979): 331-50, 347, reprinted in Virtue Ethics, eds. Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 141-62. Crisp and Slote's collection contains many of the important contributions to the virtue ethics revival.

  10. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. xxv.

  11. Kronman, p. 2.

  12. Kronman, p. 93. It is no coincidence that Kronman appeals to historical examples of the lawyer-statesman, just as the Atticus supporters appeal to a fictional figure. Both characterize the phronimos ostensively, since they are suspicious of doing so by appeal to ‘principles’ of deliberation or good character. The use of such principles would undercut the character approach's rejection of principles.

  13. This analysis may capture the compelling aspects of the idea that the professional is the client's “special purpose friend.” See Charles Fried, “The Lawyer as Friend: The Moral Foundations of the Lawyer-Client Relation,” Yale Law Journal 85 (1976): 1060-89.

Susan Arpajian Jolley (essay date November 2002)

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SOURCE: Jolley, Susan Arpajian. “Integrating Poetry and To Kill a Mockingbird.English Journal 92, no. 2 (November 2002): 34-40.

[In the following essay, Jolley discusses her approach to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to high school students in conjunction with the study of poetry treating themes of courage and compassion.]

O Mockingbird, Mockingbird! Wherefore art thou so popular? And wherefore art thou so maligned? So popular, in fact, that the mayor of Chicago would exhort his denizens to read and discuss you en masse? So popular that more than 30 million copies of you have been sold since your publication in 1960 (Carrier 216)? And so maligned that writer Francine Prose calls you a “sentimental, middlebrow favorite” (76), refers to your presence in public school curricula as “grisly” (77), and urges that high school students be shielded from your likes and exposed to a strict diet of top-flight writers like Kafka, Shakespeare, and Twain.

I maintain, however, that you are not as simplistic as some people would have us believe. You are rich enough in thematic material and accessible enough and moving enough to open the eyes of many an American high school student to worlds and perspectives they need to see. The good you can do in a high school classroom and the possibilities you present for multigenre teaching certainly outweigh any damage.


I had been away from To Kill a Mockingbird for twenty years, and when I found myself about to teach it again, I wondered how my view of it might have changed. I also wondered how well it has held up over the years. So, while I looked forward to revisiting it, I also had some doubts. What I did find was perhaps a dated novel, but a moving one nonetheless. I found in particular that the themes do remain relevant. It is precisely because these themes in Harper Lee's only novel are appropriate for twenty-first century American teenagers that I decided to devote a large chunk of time in my ninth grade classes to the study of the novel. I developed lessons in vocabulary, personal writing, expository writing, history, and poetry to accompany our reading.

The most interesting and rewarding approach I took to teaching the novel, however, was to experiment with integrating it with the study of poetry. Studying selected poems along with Mockingbird can tremendously enhance the themes as well as deepen students' worldviews and awareness of the lives of others. And while the novel concerns tragedy and injustice, heartache and loss, it also carries with it a strong sense that we need to develop courage, compassion, and an awareness of history to be better human beings.

The themes of courage and compassion, as well as what we can learn from history, are what I looked for when I selected poems to accompany the novel. These themes are popular and ever-present in literature. Most important, however, is that they are especially valuable for teenagers to examine as they grow and find their way in the world, especially the troubled world we are now facing, a world in which we must understand those who are different from us. A multigenre approach involving poetry is exciting and challenging; it can also expand students' awareness, extend meaning, and lead to more creative expression.


I started with the theme of courage. Even before we began the book, I asked students to contemplate the concept of courage. Through journal writing and brainstorming, we shared our thoughts on the subject, comparing and contrasting different types of courage—physical, moral, and emotional. Rudyard Kipling's poem “If” sheds light on so many issues and provides a wonderful starting point for discussion. I introduced this poem before the students began reading Mockingbird and returned to it periodically as we progressed through the novel.

One of my goals was to lead students to the realization that human beings of all ages are capable of demonstrating courage. Children are called upon to be brave, even though they do not necessarily identify their actions as such. The five-year-old must be brave on the first day of kindergarten, and, as my students tell me, they themselves often need to muster courage to show their report cards to their parents. As adolescents, we must develop courage to deal with peer pressure, and as adults to deal with family, career, and community issues. All people must ultimately develop the courage to face the end of their lives.

Once students get to thinking about these issues, “If” speaks to them personally as well as to the characters in Mockingbird. All of these types of courage are examined in both the poem and the novel. The youngsters in the novel—Scout, Jem, and their neighbor, Dill—face their fears of the specter-like Boo Radley by inventing ways to demystify him: acting out skits, touching the Radley house on a dare, peeking in the window, returning to a dangerous scene of mischief to retrieve a pair of pants. The young narrator, Scout, in particular, exhibits a kind of physical courage by fighting those with whom she has conflicts. These are the types of courage children must summon.

It is the courage of Atticus Finch, however, that is the centerpiece of the novel, and it is this courage that is most accurately reflected in Kipling's “If.” In fact, if Atticus were more verbal or more consciously poetic, he himself could have written the poem to his son Jem, with the pronouncement that, after following said advice, Jem would be a man.

As my students and I read Part One of the novel, we turned back to “If.” Scout and Jem learn from their father's example to keep their heads (Kipling line 1). They learn from their father's dealings with Mrs. Dubose, the cantankerous old neighbor, who continuously instructs the children as well as Atticus to not “give way to hating” (line 7). They learn from Atticus's respectful treatment of all human beings to “talk with crowds and keep [their] virtue, / Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch” (lines 25-26). Finally, the children learn from the way Atticus reacts with equanimity to the verdict in the Tom Robinson case:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same …
you'll be a Man, my son!

(lines 11-12, 32)

Kipling's “If” defines courage and manhood, as does Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

There are many other poems that can accompany Part One of Mockingbird. Tennyson's “The Charge of the Light Brigade” chronicles physical courage in a particular historical context. Anne Sexton's “Courage” is about the fortitude every human being needs to journey through life and can even remind us of the unpleasant Mrs. Dubose, who fights to end her life on her own terms, beholden to no one. There are many more poems and certainly even short stories that the resourceful teacher can offer students on the theme of courage. In addition, a poem like Robert Frost's “The Road Not Taken” can introduce students, near the end of Part One of Mockingbird, to the moral choices—the courage it takes to make them and the resulting consequences—that Atticus makes during the course of the novel.


As teachers of literature, we often have the opportunity to help our students understand other people and their views. As we entered Part Two of Mockingbird, Atticus's words from Chapter 3 began to resonate. In that chapter, he tells his daughter Scout that “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” (30). Thus Harper Lee's belief in man's need for compassion is set forth through the mouth of Atticus, and eventually through his example. The young protagonists learn compassion for others: Dill cries when he witnesses the “simple hell people give other people—without even thinking” (201); Jem cries after the Tom Robinson verdict is announced, saying, “It ain't right, Atticus” (212); and Scout finally stands on the Radley porch at the end of the book and sees the world from Boo Radley's point of view. Those lessons are obvious. There are other lessons of compassion, not quite so obvious, that can be brought home to the young reader through the study of some well-chosen poems.

I began by presenting students with Babette Deutsch's short poem, “Ape,” in which the animal thrusts his hand out of his cage in an attempt to make contact with his “grinning public” (line 13). He is, of course, rejected repeatedly; as the poet says, the ape “puts compassion to the test / And fails” (lines 4-5).

A reaction in their journals got students thinking about the creature in the poem, how he feels, what he seeks, why he is so misunderstood. In discussion, students' perspectives on compassion emerged. We also tried to examine what makes some individuals more empathetic than others. Is compassion an inherent trait? Do one's circumstances in life influence one's ability to develop compassion? I told students of studies that have shown that infants who are not properly nurtured may grow into adults who have difficulty feeling empathy. We discussed other factors that might influence a person's degree of empathy, such as unfortunate family circumstances or the treatment an individual receives in his or her life. In To Kill a Mockingbird, why is it that certain characters, particularly the typical white Maycomb residents, show absolutely no empathy for their black neighbors? Why is Tom Robinson's expression of pity for Mayella regarded as untenable by the white community? How do the youngest characters in the novel come to feel more compassion than anyone else? Perhaps we can learn something further about the subject of compassion from poetry.

I looked for poems that made powerful statements on their own and also could shed light on the positions of certain characters in Mockingbird. For instance, Theodore Roethke's “My Papa's Waltz” is the speaker's recollection of the terror he felt as a young child encountering his drunken father, who pulls the boy through the house in a metaphorical waltz, presumably to put him to bed. The speaker comments that he “held on like death” (line 3); his ear is scraped against the father's belt buckle, the father pounds on the boy's head, and the smell of whiskey pervades the room.

This poem always elicits a strong reaction from students. Is the father beating the boy? Is he merely putting the child to bed a little too roughly? Does the father also abuse the mother, who is briefly seen in the second stanza? Does the speaker realize only in retrospect what is happening? What is the tone of this poem? How does the waltz-like rhythm of the poem affect the reader?

After reading this poem, my students came up with some questions for Mayella Ewell, the young white woman who accuses the black man, Tom Robinson, of rape. Mayella's circumstances as a child could not have been so different from the speaker's in “My Papa's Waltz.” Some questions for Mayella: How do you feel when your father drinks? When he beats you? When you, even though you're so young yourself, must take care of all your siblings? When you're so lonely that you'll break the code that forbids a white woman contact with a black man? Even Atticus, the lawyer defending Tom Robinson against Mayella's lies, models compassion for the young woman in his closing argument to the jury when he states, “I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the state” (203). Perhaps a reading of “My Papa's Waltz” can help students stand in Mayella's shoes for a moment.

The character of Calpurnia, the Finches' maid, also deserves some examination. What is it like to stand in a black woman's shoes in the Alabama of the 1930s? Harper Lee gives us but a hint. We see Calpurnia primarily as she interacts with the white world. We see her in her own milieu only once—when she takes Jem and Scout to church with her. Maybe a poem can help us see more. Alice Walker's tribute to her mother and her mother's contemporaries, “Women,” describes in metaphors the generation of black women who worked as domestics, fought prejudice, and sacrificed to make sure their children were educated. These mothers are portrayed as generals in a war—figuratively speaking, the war against bigotry. They fight this war, and even though they themselves can't read, their object is to win an education for their children.

Calpurnia, unlike the women in Alice Walker's poem, can read. She has taught her son to read. She has a job and is treated well by the Finches. But most students will not give much thought to what it is like to be Calpurnia—traveling back and forth between the black and white worlds in Alabama, serving a white family, changing her position and changing her speech as she goes. Walker's poem can help open their eyes.

The poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar provide special insight. The most obvious connection is between the caged bird in “Sympathy” and the metaphorically caged mockingbirds in Lee's novel. Both Boo Radley, shut up in his own house, and Tom Robinson, imprisoned in a world of prejudice, are reminiscent of the bird in Dunbar's poem who “beats his wing” (line 8) against the bars of the cage; who “beats his bars and … would be free” (line 17); who sends a prayer to heaven “from his heart's deep core” (line 19). Both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are misunderstood, as is Dunbar's caged bird that people mistakenly think is singing a happy song.

Less obvious to young readers, however, may be the connection between Dunbar's “We Wear the Mask” and the black community in Mockingbird. To make this connection, the reader must confront some delicate issues, particularly the ones that arise in Chapter 24, when Aunt Alexandra, Atticus's sister, hosts the meeting of her local missionary circle. The ladies of Maycomb display their gossipy ignorance, bigotry, and insensitivity in their every comment, Miss Maudie being the only participant to demonstrate good sense and fairness. A character named Mrs. Merriweather does the best job of making us squirm when she describes her black maid's reaction to the gross injustice perpetrated in the Tom Robinson verdict:

“Gertrude, I tell you there's nothing more distracting than a sulky darky. Their mouths go down to here. Just ruins your day to have one of 'em in the kitchen. You know what I said to my Sophy, Gertrude? I said, ‘Sophy,’ I said, ‘you simply are not being a Christian today. Jesus Christ never went around grumbling and complaining,’ and you know, it did her good. She took her eyes off that floor and said, ‘Nome, Miz Merriweather, Jesus never went around grumblin.’”


The black man or woman's dilemma in being unable to express true feelings in front of whites is no more poignantly illustrated than in Dunbar's “We Wear the Mask”:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

(lines 1-5)

This poem, as well as “Sympathy,” speaks to the issues in Mockingbird but also speaks to adolescents of all races; adolescents, even those who do not know racial isolation, often know the pain of feeling trapped, or the pain of being unable to express their true selves. Studying these works can aid in the development of compassion and understanding.


The poems I've mentioned and myriad others can lead us closer to an understanding of what it is like to stand in someone else's shoes. But perhaps the most powerful lessons that can be learned through multi-genre study involve the history of our country. Any study of To Kill a Mockingbird should encompass a study of the civil rights movement. It is surprising that so many Americans know nothing about the Scottsboro trials on which the court case in Mockingbird is based, a fact lamented in Countee Cullen's poem “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song.” There are many sources available on the topic, particularly online, and last year PBS produced a superb documentary on the trials and their aftermath. I show this video as students are reading Part Two of the book and then delve into some historical material.

Many students are unaware of the incidents of lynching so common in the first half of the twentieth century. Reading the lyrics, written first as a poem by Lewis Allan, to Billie Holiday's haunting “Strange Fruit” can give frightening meaning to the scene in Chapter 15 in which Atticus sits in front of the jail door to protect Tom Robinson from a possible lynching:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

“Strange Fruit.” Words and Music by Lewis Allan © 1939 (Renewed) by Music Sales Corporation (ASCAP) International Copyrights secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

These powerful lyrics, made more pointed by Holiday's moving rendition, readily available on cassette or CD, are something students will not soon forget.

Neither is “Ballad of Birmingham,” Dudley Randall's poem written about the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in which four young black girls were killed. The poem opens as a dialogue between a mother and her daughter, who is asking if she may go downtown to march in a freedom rally. The mother, fearing for her daughter's safety, sends her instead to church. Instead of finding safety there, the girl dies in an explosion. As with “Strange Fruit,” “Ballad of Birmingham” provides rich lessons in irony, imagery, the power of poetry, and the history of our country.

It is not difficult to find poems that illuminate Harper Lee's historical perspective in To Kill a Mockingbird, which, while set in the 1930s, was written with a 1960 sensibility. Although written before the civil rights movement, “If We Must Die,” the sonnet by Claude McKay, can open a discussion about how to respond to injustice. So can Randall's “Booker T. and W. E. B.” However, really studying the two views in this poem may require more time than a teacher can allow, since the reader needs to understand the lives and philosophies of both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.

The teacher who is willing to devote a significant amount of time to the history covered in To Kill a Mockingbird can also turn to prose, particularly nonfiction, and even to artwork to provide additional dimensions. Excerpts from Richard Wright's Black Boy address the question of how to respond to injustice and whether or not to fight back physically. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is also a natural connection to make as it deals with the same issue. As Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy states. King's pacifist ideas are often oversimplified for our schoolchildren. He writes that King, in addition to being remembered for advocating nonviolence, should be recognized as the “boat-rocker” that he was:

He rocked black communities by insisting that African Americans play a more dynamic part in their own emancipation. And he rocked white communities by emphasizing the terrible costs incurred by those who oppress others or sit by lazily or indifferently as those who have been oppressed continue to suffer.


Even Norman Rockwell's 1964 painting, “The Problem We All Live With.” in which an African American schoolgirl must be escorted by US marshals to her newly desegregated school, can provide a most effective history lesson. The point of integrating these works with the reading of Mockingbird is to enrich the experience with the novel by broadening perspectives and reinforcing themes.


For the Mockingbird/poetry unit to be complete, I felt I needed to include creative writing activities and a multigenre project. Inspired by Tom Romano's Blending Genre, Altering Style and Kenneth Koch's Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, I tried several techniques.

I approached poetry writing casually, so as not to intimidate. Although Koch's book is about his experiences teaching poetry writing to elementary school children, much of what he says applies to students of all ages. I had already tried with some success his suggestions about collaborative poetry, each child contributing a line, all of which center on an idea or motif. As Koch says, in this context, a “teacher shouldn't correct a child's poems … If a word or line is unclear, it is fine to ask the child what he meant, but not to change it in order to make it meet one's own standards” (28). Also, Koch says, a teacher shouldn't “single out any poems as being best or worst” (27). I liked these ideas, even at the ninth grade level, and especially when students were insecure about their ability to write poems. My goal was to create a safe environment where everyone's work was accepted and applauded.

I began by looking at the structure of some of the poems we had read and asking students to write original couplets or quatrains in their journals. At first they balked, but when I modeled or suggested they write about something important to them, they had no problem. Willing students read their couplets aloud or wrote them on the board. Then, using an idea I had read in an article by Matthew Sharpe entitled “The Crisis in the Classroom: Object Lesson,” I asked my students to write a series of couplets about a character in To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted them to write over a period of a week, as they were reading Part Two of the book, to see their changing perspectives on the character. Their lines were heartfelt. David wrote the following:

Scout is not like other girls,
She does not care for jewels and pearls.
She wants to act just like the boys,
Adventure and toughness are her joys.

What delighted me the most was that these lines and others like them captured the qualities of Harper Lee's characters succinctly and honestly.

I praised and welcomed everyone's lines. Then something happened that I had not expected. Shortly after we began experimenting in this informal way with writing verse, students began bringing me poetry that they had written in the past or were inspired to write now. They were eager to share their writing with the class, and I was pleased that they felt safe enough and encouraged enough to do so.

I ended the Mockingbird unit by assigning a multigenre project that included five components: poetic, visual, historical, dramatic, and personal. I wanted each of these components to be, as Romano states, “self-contained, making a point of its own, yet connected by theme or topic and sometimes by language, images, and content” (x-xi). I asked students to do the following: find or write a poem related to the ideas in the novel; create a visual representation of something suggested in the novel; do further research on history related to the events or ideas in Mockingbird; write a dialogue that takes place fifteen years after the action of the story, using the characters in the novel or creating new ones; and write a personal response to an aspect of the novel. My students approached the project enthusiastically and came up with beautiful work.

A typical theme running through these multi-genre projects involved understanding others. Mike's project is representative of the responses I got. He began by presenting the poem “Understanding” by Sara Teasdale, part of the collection Flame and Shadow, which he found in an online poetry site. He quoted the line “Your spirit's secret hides like gold” and wrote that it reminded him of Boo Radley and “how nobody knew anything about him.” In his imaginary dialogue between an adult Scout and Dill, who are now married, Scout tells Dill that she wishes she had been older when the Tom Robinson trial took place. When Dill asks her why, Scout says, “Because I feel like I should have done something to help him out.” Finally, in his personal reflections Mike wrote, “One of the main lessons that he [Atticus] taught his children was not to judge a person until you walk around in his skin. I know that I don't always do this in my life but now that I am aware of how important it is, I will start.” I found that Mike had even achieved the kind of unity Tom Romano advocates in a multi-genre paper: he unified his paper around the idea of compassion. After I read Mike's and others' writings, I knew my lessons about courage, compassion, and history had reached my ninth graders.


It takes plenty of time to plan a multigenre unit, but it takes much more time to actually teach it. There is a danger that a teacher could stretch a unit out too far and risk losing the interest of the class. There are several remedies for this, however. Most teachers know how much a class can absorb and when it is time to move on. A teacher who is skillful in managing time and varying activities can pace the unit in a way that holds students' interest. Most important, however, in engaging students is the teacher's own passion for the literature. I loved working with To Kill a Mockingbird and all the poems I have mentioned. The teacher's passion about the works and themes can and will transfer to students. Soon, they themselves will begin, as my students did, to do what the teacher does in preparing such a multigenre unit: look for connections among fact and fiction, the past and the present, their own lives and literature, and even among genres.

Works Cited

Allan, Lewis. “Strange Fruit.” Rec. 7 June 1956. The Billie Holiday Songbook. PolyGram Classics, 1985.

Carrier, Rhonda, ed. The Guinness Book of Records. Stamford, CT: Guinness Publishing, 1998.

Chapman, Abraham, ed. Black Voices. New York: Penguin. 1968.

Cullen, Countee. “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song.” Chapman 385.

Deutsch, Babette. “Ape.” Literature: Orange Level 447.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “Sympathy.” Chapman 356-57.

———. “We Wear the Mask.” Chapman 355.

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. 105.

Kennedy, Randall. “Honor King with Service and Memory.” The Philadelphia Inquirer 21 Jan. 2002, South Jersey ed.: A7.

King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Stanford 219-33.

Kipling, Rudyard. “If.” Literature and Language: Blue Level 352.

Koch, Kenneth. Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. New York: HarperCollins, 1970.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner, 1960.

Literature and Language: Blue Level. Evanston, IL: McDougal, Littell, 1989.

Literature: Orange Level. Evanston, IL: McDougal, Littell, 1989.

McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.” Chapman 372-73.

Prose, Francine. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American High School Students Learn to Loathe Literature.” Harper's Sept. 1999: 76-84.

Randall, Dudley. “Ballad of Birmingham.” Black Literature in America. Ed. Houston A. Baker Jr. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1971, 337-38.

———. “Booker T. and W. E. B.” Stanford 76-77.

Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa's Waltz.” The New Oxford Book of American Verse. Ed. Richard Ellman. New York: Oxford, 1976, 721.

Romano, Tom. Blending Genre, Altering Style. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2000.

Sexton, Anne. “Courage.” Literature and Language: Blue Level 352.

Sharpe, Matthew. “The Crisis in the Classroom: Object Lesson.” Teachers and Writers Nov.-Dec. 2001: 20-21.

Stanford, Barbara Dodds, ed. I, Too, Sing America: Black Voices in American Literature. Rochelle Park, NY: Hayden Book Company, 1971.

Teasdale, Sara. “Understanding.” Poets' Corner. Ed. Bob Blair, et al. 2000, 29 Jan. 2002.

Tennyson, Alfred. “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The Poems of Tennyson. Ed. Christopher Ricks. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. 1034-35.

Walker, Alice. “Women.” Literature: Orange Level 458.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy. 1945. New York: HarperPerennial. 1993.

Carolyn M. Jones (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Jones, Carolyn M. “Harper Lee.” In The History of Southern Women's Literature, edited by Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks, pp. 413-18. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Jones provides a general overview of To Kill a Mockingbird and its critical reception.]

As Harper Lee struggled to rework the manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird, Newsweek reported in 1961, her supporters at Lippincott were “screaming and yelling, hollering, ‘The book may not sell 2,000 copies, but we love Nelle.’” Their enthusiasm initiated that of a nation as Harper Lee burst onto the literary scene in 1960 with the publication of her first and only novel. To Kill a Mockingbird has never gone out of print, and its gentle but tough story of a small southern town, a racist act, a trial, an honorable man, and a lively young girl coming of age has influenced, now, nearly three generations of readers.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1926, a descendent of Robert E. Lee. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, on whom Atticus Finch, the major character in her novel is based, was a lawyer in the small town. He had been part owner and editor of the Monroe Journal and was in the state legislature from 1926 to 1938. He seems to have been a tough and principled person, defending blacks in the small town in various court cases—though not in one like the rape case in the novel. He died just after the film of To Kill a Mockingbird was completed in 1962. Michael Freedland, in Gregory Peck: A Biography (1980), says that Amasa Lee was immensely proud of his daughter because he believed she “had joined the ranks of [the] band of Southern writers … for telling his story.”

Lee's mother, Frances, was from a Virginia family who moved to Alabama and founded the city of Finchburg. She is characterized by Gerald Clarke, in Capote: A Biography (1987), as a difficult and emotionally unstable woman who tried twice to drown Lee in the bathtub. Clarke writes that the child was saved each time by one of her older sisters. This story so infuriated Lee that she made, through her sister Alice, one of her few public statements. Lee had Alice tell the Monroe Journal, “I can't say that the story was a lie in enough ways to get the point across.” Very little has been published on Frances Lee's life. She died on June 2, 1951, never seeing her daughter's success.

Lee was a tomboy who followed in her father's footsteps. She attended Huntingdon College from 1944 to 1945 and the University of Alabama law school from 1945 to 1949. Indeed, one of her few public appearances in recent years was at a graduation ceremony for the University of Alabama law school. She also studied one year at Oxford University. After completing her education, Lee moved to New York City, where she divided her time between writing—influenced by her literary heroes Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Eudora Welty—and working as a reservations clerk for Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways. When her father became ill, Lee began to divide her time between New York and Monroeville. Given a present of time by a group of friends, she left the airlines to write full time.

Her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published first by Lippincott in 1960, intersecting with the important events of the then burgeoning civil rights movement. The novel was well received by the critical community. Mockingbird was called authentic and fresh, taking a common theme and making it work “forcefully,” as Keith Waterhouse put it in the New Statesman. It offered, as Richard Sullivan observed in the Chicago Tribune, “a view of the American South, its attitudes, feelings, and traditions,” without being a sociological novel. The novel was an immediate popular success, selling two and a half million copies in its first year and going through fourteen printings. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, along with numerous other awards. It was Bestseller's paperback book of the year in 1962. And it became a Literary Guild selection, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate, and a Reader's Digest condensed book. The novel continues to be widely read and has never been out of print. It has been translated into at least ten languages and has sold between twelve and fifteen million copies. On its strength, Lee was named, in 1966, to the National Council on the Arts.

The novel was made into an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Horton Foote. The course of the making of the film illustrates how potentially controversial Lee's novel was at the time of its publication. According to Michael Freedland, Rock Hudson originally brought the novel to Universal Studios. The major studios, however, were reluctant to consider the idea because of the political climate in the country. They did not want to make a “race picture” for fear of losing the whole southern audience. Hudson abandoned the project, and Alan Pakula and Robert Mulligan bought the rights; Pakula produced the film. Gregory Peck, who had filmed other “race pictures” (such as Gentleman's Agreement, a powerful and lyrical attack on anti-Semitism), made the film through his own production company. Peck recalls meeting Amasa Lee, who was frail, suffering with arthritis, but interested in all the proceedings. The film won Peck an Academy Award for best actor. Peck tells how Lee gave him her father's pocket watch: Amasa Lee had always toyed with the watch when in court, and Harper Lee schooled Peck in the use of the watch; when the filming was over, she gave it to him, and he carried it the night he won the Oscar. Freedland quotes Lee as saying that the film was her vision of the novel: “In that film the man and the part met. … I've had many, many offers to turn it into musicals, into TV or stage plays, but I've always refused. That film was a work of art.” There is, however, a stage version of the novel by Christopher Sergel that is presented annually at the Old Courthouse in Monroeville.

Lee said she saw the novel as a simple love story—of Atticus Finch and justice. Lee clearly saw in her father someone who had always respected the rights of human beings, black or white, and who stood up for those rights. She demonstrates through the figure of Atticus Finch that the struggle for human dignity for African Americans had white supporters in the South long before the civil rights movement. The novel, however, is more than a novel of the South and its traditions and quirks and more than a novel of black-white relations and collisions. It is a portrait of the human heart of a just man, and how his principled life influences his children, his town, and, through Scout Finch's narration, a nation that, in 1960, was experiencing tension between itself and that for which it stands.

The novel concerns a period of about three years, 1933 to 1936, in the life of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her family in Maycomb, Alabama, and it describes two related events. The first is the trial of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell, a white woman. The trial and the tensions it reveals transform the sleepy town of Maycomb for Scout and her brother, Jem, as they are forced to interrogate the hierarchy of their society—to look through its surface manners and politeness and into the human heart and human mind, and to forge a new relationship to the world in which they live. The second is the children's investigation and the eventual emergence of Boo Radley, a “malevolent phantom,” who ultimately saves Scout's and Jem's lives. Both Boo and Tom are “gray ghosts,” with little role in Maycomb's society other than as phantoms or threats. For the children, however, they represent coming to terms with their heritage and their environment. Boo is, for the children, an exercise in coming to know the “other” within their own boundaries. Their wonder about Boo and their desire to know him is paralleled with the need for the adults in the town and on the jury to know Tom Robinson, that “other” who is familiar but also alien. Scout and Jem do what the adults of Maycomb and those of a modern America must do: learn to “read” their world (literacy is a major theme of the novel) and to make judgments based not on custom and prejudice but on character and truth.

Maycomb, a small southern town, is the scene of these complications of relationship and action. The Finch family, landholders and ex-slave owners, is one of its important families. The men in the family, Scout tells us early in the narrative, traditionally remain on the self-sufficient plantation, Finch's Landing, and “make their living from cotton.” Atticus Finch and his brother leave Finch's Landing, while their sister Alexandra, who represents southern virtue, hierarchy, and prejudice, remains on the family land. Lee, without comment, shows us the interwoven lives that such a history creates. The Finch family housekeeper, Calpurnia, for example, is probably the descendant of one of the three slaves that Simon Finch brought to the landing. Such subtle clues about relationality and intimacy complicate the idea that the novel is simply young adult literature, the category in which it has been classified.

Atticus Finch's defense of Tom Robinson is his “moment of truth”: he must stand up publicly for his private beliefs. This moment forces him to confront his own family's history as slaveholders, his choice to separate from that mode of being, and, at the same time, the truth that he cannot escape its legacy. This legacy of racism is present and embodied in his family and his neighbors. Finally, his act forces the reader to confront America's history as a slaveholding nation, the consequences of that legacy, and his or her own prejudices and fears. The novel utilizes symbols to remind us of the ambiguity of Atticus' situation and of the deep fears and desires the town, and by extension, the nation, faces in confronting the issues of race. For example, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose's camellia is a symbol of her will and endurance and that of the antebellum South that she comes from and still loves, but it is also a symbol of the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. The mad dog that Atticus shoots and kills represents the mad dog of racism that must be dealt with, not violently, but through persuasion in a public structure of deliberation, the trial. Atticus bridges these antinomies. In the person of Atticus, we do not get the kind of existential angst that one often encounters in the modern hero. Rather, as he faces this trial, Atticus neither chooses detachment and exile nor does he try to make himself the center. He knows that he will lose, yet he gives his best. As the stoic Christian, Atticus chooses the path of duty, honesty, constancy, and compassion. Lee is asking through Atticus Finch, and through his children who carry forward his ethos, what of the past enables us to face the future? What lets us remain constant and yet acknowledge the need for and embrace change?

Although To Kill a Mockingbird is Lee's only novel, it is a masterpiece. When the novel was printed, Lee said that she was working on a second novel, but it has never appeared. Her other published work includes “Love—In Other Words,” printed in Vogue (1961), and two articles for McCalls, “Christmas to Me” (1961) and “When Children Discover America” (1965). A more recent essay, “Romance and High Adventure,” Lee presented as a paper for the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival. That gathering explored, as Jerry E. Brown explained in the editor's preface to Clearings in the Thicket: An Alabama Humanities Reader (1985), the thicket, the literal translation of the word “Alabama” and by extension, “human clearings, moments when minds and hearts catch up to experience and make something from it.” Lee reinforced in her paper her insistence on the need for Americans to come to terms with history. She wrote: “We Americans like to put our culture in disposable containers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way we treat our past. We discard villages, towns, even cities, when they grow old, and we are now in the process of discarding our recorded history, not in a shredder but by rewriting it as romance. … [We] want anything but the real thing.” She then went on to discuss Albert James Pickett's History of Alabama (1851) in the same lively yet serious style that characterizes Mockingbird. It is unclear whether Lee plans to publish more; she told Claudia Durst Johnson in an unpublished interview that she has abandoned her second novel and is working on her memoirs.

Harper Lee need never write another word. Her only novel is one of the most popular and influential works of modern southern literature. It continues to be widely read and taught, and the public's fascination with the private Lee has led to an Internet site on Lee and the novel. The novel captures perfectly the South and the nation as they stand poised for change. The South and the nation are the same, in many ways, in 1936, 1960, and now: children still face rites of passage, lose their innocence, and decide what kinds of adults they will become. Racism still exists, and good people still fight it. The world, however, has changed: men and women like Atticus Finch and his children and Tom Robinson's children have altered our relationships with one another. That it captures the perennially human and the challenge to change, as it offers the tools to face change—Scout Finch's curiosity and humor and Atticus Finch's courage, fortitude, and power—make this novel timeless.

Harper Lee leads an active but very private life. She continues to divide her time between New York and Monroeville. Kathy Kemp, in the Raleigh News and Observer (1997), tells the story of going to Lee's door and, when Lee answered, thrusting forward a copy of Mockingbird. Lee, noting that it was six in the evening, with “a look of disgust on her face,” said, “Good gosh. It's a little late for this sort of thing, isn't it?” Nevertheless, she signed the book, and, when Kemp thanked her, she replied in “a voice full of warmth and good cheer, ‘You're quite welcome.’” This lack of pretension points to a woman who is not reclusive but who seeks to lead a normal life despite her fame. In 1995, when HarperCollins issued an anniversary edition of her novel, the publisher asked Lee to write an introduction to the work. Lee wrote an introduction against introductions, stating that the book stands on its own. In the midst of this introduction, Kathy Kemp notes, Lee “offered a tiny personal note, which is more eloquent than any sentence about her by another writer”: “I am still alive,” she wrote, “although very quiet.”

Isaac Saney (essay date July-September 2003)

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SOURCE: Saney, Isaac. “The Case against To Kill a Mockingbird.Race & Class 45, no. 1 (July-September 2003): 99-110.

[In the following essay, Saney discusses the media's response to the 1996 banning of To Kill a Mockingbird from the standard curricula of public schools in Nova Scotia.]

For many years the Black Educators' Association and parents, amongst others, have lobbied the Nova Scotia Department of Education and school boards to remove various books from the school curriculum and school use. Similar initiatives have taken place in New Brunswick and other provinces across Canada. Pressure from the community forced the Department of Education to face up to its social responsibility to provide enlightened education and teaching materials and address the issue of restricting racist materials in the province's classrooms, in the same way that pressure had forced the government to abandon its legislated policy of segregated schooling for the African Nova Scotian population, a policy only formally ended in the 1950s. In 1996, after intensive community pressure, three works—To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; In the Heat of the Night by John Dudley Ball; and Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker—were taken off the authorised list of texts recommended by the Department of Education. They can no longer be purchased from the provincial government.

Six years later, in March 2002, the African-Nova Scotian ad hoc advisory committee (a committee of parents and educators) of the Tri-County district, which runs schools in southwestern Nova Scotia, recommended that the three works should be removed from school use altogether. Many educators consider these demands as minimal and as barely beginning to address the serious inequalities which continue to pervade the education system. Members of the Black Educators' Association (BEA) again seconded this specific recommendation. In the words of BEA director Gerry Clarke, a former school principal: ‘It's demeaning and offensive to those students who have to put up with this.’ Indeed, a 2000 report on To Kill a Mockingbird laid out the community's concerns:

In this novel, African-Canadian students are presented with language that portrays all the stereotypical generalizations that demean them as a people. While the White student and White teacher may misconstrue it as language of an earlier era or the way it was, this language is still widely used today and the book serves as a tool to reinforce its usage even further … The terminology in this novel subjects students to humiliating experiences that rob them of their self-respect and the respect of their peers. The word ‘Nigger’ is used 48 times [in] the novel … There are many available books which reflect the past history of African-Canadians or Americans without subjecting African-Canadian learners to this type of degradation … We believe that the English Language Arts curriculum in Nova Scotia must enable all students to feel comfortable with ideas, feelings and experiences presented without fear of humiliation … To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly a book that no longer meets these goals and therefore must no longer be used for classroom instruction.1

The recommendation to remove the books was initially agreed to by the Tri-County School Board which ordered the works removed from school use in Shelburne, Yarmouth and Digby counties. However, pandemonium broke loose all over the printed press, radio and television media, nationally and internationally. In the main Canadian and provincial newspapers, some twenty-eight articles appeared. When the educators explained that the works used abusive and racist language and perpetuated demeaning stereotypical images and generalisations, emphasising that the books did not meet the needs of ‘all students’, the Canadian monopoly-controlled news media immediately took what had been said out of context and declared that the Black community had embraced ‘book banning’ and ‘censorship’. Opposition to the books, especially To Kill a Mockingbird, was likened to ‘the gathering shadow of oppression’.2 Thus, the media gave far more coverage to this distortion than to the substance of the Black community's recommendations.

The National Post went so far as to survey such leading American literary figures as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley on the merits of To Kill a Mockingbird, citing its use in city-wide reading contests ‘as springboards for citywide discussions’ for its ‘message of acceptance [of] people of other races than your own’. It then argued, how could Nova Scotia have a different policy to the United States, asserting that ‘[t]here are more blacks in Chicago than there are people in Nova Scotia’.3 An accompanying editorial declared that racism was a matter of the past and blamed ‘the anti-racism industry’ for obscuring the ‘historical content in which overt racism once thrived’.4National Post columnist Robert Fulford likewise converted the recommendation that the book not be used by teachers in the classroom into a call to ban the ‘much-loved book’ and fulminated how those who had been oppressed were now calling for ‘censorship’ ‘for the sole reason that they [the books] contain this intolerable word (“Nigger”)’. Referring to comments by the BEA's Brenda Clarke, he declared: ‘Beware of those who believe they can manage the self-esteem of others by denying them books. She demonstrates that the impulse to censor never dies, it just changes targets.’5 The Globe and Mail in its editorial, published on the same day and under the identical title as the National Post's, termed Harper Lee's book a ‘wonderful teaching tool’ and also called for Canadians to emulate Chicago, which ‘felt it would encourage greater racial understanding’.6 Consequently, after the media frenzy and the intervention of the minister of education, Jane Purves, the Tri-County school board changed its stand on 30 May 2002 in a 6-2 vote.

The arguments advanced by the Black community were consistently presented in a non-serious, even risible, light so as to give the impression that the Black educators and parents are ignorant of the merits of literature, mere emotional whiners and complainers, belonging to a hot-headed fringe. For example, after the decision was made to keep the books in the curriculum, the Halifax Daily News in an editorial was ‘relieved cooler heads have prevailed’, reproducing the racist notions of inherent Black emotionality versus the rationality of white society.7


Editorialists were especially incensed that To Kill a Mockingbird had come under criticism. The book was lauded as a classic, a paragon of anti-racist literature and, therefore, untouchable and sacrosanct.8 The Black community was chided for being overly sensitive to the use of racial slurs and for its failure appreciate the context and message of the novel. What was ignored was that the use of racist epithets or negative and debased imagery is not the only basis upon which to determine the racist or anti-racist character of a book. Jane Kansas, a columnist for the Halifax Daily News, typified the prevailing mindset. She, along with other partisans of the book, invoked the lecture Miss Maudie Atkinson delivers to Atticus Finch's daughter, Scout, on why it is ‘a sin to kill a mockingbird’. This ‘homily’ was extolled as the most eloquent literary anti-racist statement.9 Indeed, the lines define the book:

‘Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.’10

However, Kansas and others failed to explore the obvious meaning behind these words. Is not the mockingbird a metaphor for the entire African American population? Do these lines, as the partisans of the book assert, embody the loftiest ideals and sentiments? Harper Lee's motives notwithstanding, they are not a paean to the intrinsic equality and humanity of all peoples, nor do they acknowledge that Blacks are endowed with the same worth and rights as whites. What these lines say is that Black people are useful and harmless creatures—akin to decorous pets—that should not be treated brutally. This is reminiscent of the thinking that pervaded certain sectors of the abolition movement against slavery which did not extol the equality of Africans, but paralleled the propaganda of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, arguing that just as one should not treat one's horse, ox or dog cruelly, one should not treat one's Black cruelly.11 By foisting this mockingbird image on African Americans, the novel does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior ‘races’, the notion of those meant to rule versus those meant to be ruled. What it attacks are the worst—particularly violent—excesses of the racist social order, leaving the racist social order itself intact. In short, as Malcolm X would probably have said, it presents the outlook of the ‘enlightened’ versus the ‘unenlightened’ slave owner, who wishes to preserve the value of his human property, the beasts of burden, to labour for his benefit, enjoyment and profit.

Central to the view that To Kill a Mockingbird is a solid and inherently anti-racist work is the role of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, the Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Indeed, Atticus goes so far as to save Tom from a lynching.12 However, this act has no historical foundation. The acclaimed exhibition Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, sponsored by the Roth-Horowitz Gallery and the New York Historical Society, documented more than 600 incidents of lynching. This landmark exposition and study established that ‘lynchers tended to be ordinary people and respectable people, few of whom had any difficulties justifying their atrocities in the name of maintaining the social and racial order and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race’.13 In two years of investigation, the exhibit researchers found no evidence of intervention by a white person to stop even a single lynching.

Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denial of the historical agency of Black people. They are robbed of their role as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation. There's the rub! The novel and its supporters deny that Black people have been the central actors in their movement for liberation and justice, from widespread African resistance to, and revolts against, slavery and colonialism to the twentieth century's mass movements challenging segregation, discrimination and imperialism. Yet, To Kill a Mockingbird confounds the relationship between whites of conscience and the struggles of the Black community. The novel is set in the 1930s and portrays Blacks as somnolent, awaiting someone from outside to take up and fight for the cause of justice. It is as if the Scottsboro case—in which nine young Black men travelling on a freight train in search of work were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women who were riding the same freight train—never happened. The trial was a ‘legal lynching carried through with the cooperation of the courts and the law enforcement agencies’.14 All but one were sentenced to death; the jury was hung on whether the ninth one should be sentenced to life imprisonment or death. The germane point is that a maelstrom of activity swept through African American communities, both North and South. They organised, agitated, petitioned and marched in support of and to free the nine young men. To Kill a Mockingbird gives no inkling of this mass protest and instead creates the indelible impression that the entire Black community existed in a complete state of paralysis. It was African North Americans who took up the task of confronting and organising against racism, who through weal and woe, trial and tribulation, carried on—and still carry on the battle for equal rights and dignity. Those whites who did, and do, make significant contributions gave, and give, their solidarity in response.

However, this necessary historical contextualisation for dealing adequately with the book rarely occurs in the classroom. Thus, the images and messages of To Kill a Mockingbird are given new life, despite the reality that—as in the case of Uncle Tom's Cabin—these motifs have long since outlived any positive and progressive purpose and are not only useless for today's task of building a society based on true equality, but, indeed, are a detriment and a retrogressive block. Furthermore, there has been considerable resistance to the incorporation of available literature reflecting both the African American and African Nova Scotian experience. Repeated suggestions have been made to include in the curriculum, for example, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Native Son by Richard Wright; Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; Whylah Falls by George Elliot Clarke and Consecrated Ground by George Boyd. The last two authors are award-winning Black Nova Scotians. Indeed, Clarke was the 2002 recipient of Canada's most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General's Award.


The hardworking and humble educators and parents, selfless volunteer contributors of their time and energies, who made these recommendations honestly and honourably, had to contend with the stigma of being called ‘benign censors’ as they were shamelessly branded. Their well-reasoned and reasonable opposition, based on a clear and sound understanding of history and education, was caricatured and demeaned. The dominant media, within and without Nova Scotia, affirmed that the degrading portrayal of an entire people, the continual depiction of servitude and the negation of historical agency are the hallmarks of classic literature. What prevailed were the outdated ideas of the nineteenth century, affinity and devotion to paternalistic conceptions of society; a reflection of the imbalance of power and marginalisation embedded in the status quo.

In short, the media's response amounted to a defence of ‘freedom’ for racist literature. The issue cannot be reduced to a matter of technical arguments and justifications or the advocating of a parallel ‘anti-racist’ curriculum. The racists today masquerade as ‘anti-racists’, the opponents of ‘hate literature’. The media's editorialising against all ‘censorship’ and ‘banning’ includes vigorous hostility to the censorship and banning of racism. Its advocacy of freedom of speech includes freedom of speech for racists and fascists. There cannot be the slightest mystery about how racism works, particularly its intertwining with the state. Neither fully curable nor manageable in the present social order, racism cannot be tackled at leisure; it must be combated in all its forms, without pause. However, in this struggle educators and writers must not forget that they are not dealing with an honourable media; that dirty and ruthless political warfare is being waged over the question of racism on the front of literature and ideology.


  1. ‘A proposal regarding the usage of the novel: To Kill a Mockingbird’ (Halifax, African-Canadian Services Division, Nova Scotia Department of Education and the Race Relations Coordinators in Nova Scotia, English program division of the Education Department, February 4, 2000).

  2. Jane Kansas, ‘Censors Would Kill Mockingbird's Song’. Daily News (5 May 2002).

  3. Anne Marie Owens, ‘U.S. Embraces Novel N.S. Group Wants to Ban’, National Post (7 May 2002).

  4. ‘To Ban a Mockingbird’, National Post (7 May 2002.

  5. Robert Fulford, ‘We Have to Believe Reason Beats Racism’, National Post (11 May 2002).

  6. ‘To Ban a Mockingbird’. Globe & Mail (7 May 2002).

  7. ‘Cooler Heads Prevail over Ban’, Daily News (9 May 2002).

  8. ‘Novel Dilemma’. Chronicle Herald (12 May 2002).

  9. Jane Kansas, op. cit.

  10. Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird (London, Pan, 1981), p. 96.

  11. See comment by Richard Hart in the documentary ‘The Black Image: Representations of Africans in Europe throughout History’ (London, Association for Curriculum Development, 1990).

  12. Lee, op. cit., p. 154: 8.

  13. See James Allen and Leon F. Litwack, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, NM, Twin Palms. 2000).

  14. Harry Haywood. Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago, Liberator Press, 1978).

Laurie Champion (essay date summer 2003)

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SOURCE: Champion, Laurie. “Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.Explicator 61, no. 4 (summer 2003): 234-36.

[In the following essay, Champion explicates the symbolic use of the terms “right” and “left” in To Kill a Mockingbird, arguing that “right” in the novel symbolizes virtue, while “left” symbolizes iniquity.]

Throughout Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, besides the ordinary connotations of “right” and “left” as opposing spatial directions, the terms also work on a subtler level: “right” suggesting virtue and “left” suggesting iniquity.

Connotations of “right” and “left” play a crucial role during the climactic trial scenes. Building evidence against Bob Ewell, Atticus asks Sheriff Tate which one of Mayella's eyes was bruised the night she was attacked, and Tate replies, “Her left.” Atticus asks, “Was it her left facing you or her left looking the same way you were?” (179). Tate says, “Oh yes, that'd make it her right. It was her right eye, Mr. Finch. I remember now, she was bunged up on that side of her face” (179). Bob says that he agrees with Tate's testimony that Mayella's “right eye was blackened” (187). A reading of the transcript of Tate's testimony reminds the jury that Tate testified that Mayella's right eye was black: “[W]hich eye her left oh yes that'd make it her right it was her right eye. […] [I]t was her right eye I said—” (187). Directional words “right” and “left” are repeated, emphasizing the dichotomy. Literally, Mayella could not see clearly from her right eye when it was bruised; symbolically, Mayella cannot act morally.

Whereas Mayella's right eye is bruised, Atticus is nearly blind in his left eye, both literally and figuratively: “Whenever he wanted to see something well, he turned his head and looked from his right eye” (98). Later, when Atticus scolds Scout, he pins her “to the wall with his good eye” (146). When Atticus questions Mayella on the witness stand, he “turned his good right eye to the witness” (199). Atticus uses his “right” eye, his “good” eye for wisdom. Both “good” and “right” express moral undertones, as in “the good,” suggesting wisdom and insight are products of “good” eyes.

Portrayals of Mayella's bruised right eye also contrast portrayals of Tom's left arm, which was “fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side” (197). Tom's left arm “hung dead,” just as immorality is dead in him. While the court observes Tom's mangled left arm, Atticus asks Mayella, “He blackened your left eye with his right fist?” (198-99). Atticus's point is made, and with repeated use of various connotations of words such as “left,” “right,” and “side,” implications of morality abound.

Atticus proves Bob is left-handed, providing circumstantial evidence that Bob attacked Mayella. Atticus says, “Mayella Ewell was beaten savagely by someone who led almost exclusively with his left” (216). Bob signs a warrant “with his left hand,” whereas Tom takes “the oath with the only good hand he possesses—his right hand” (216). Bob is “led” by the immoral left, but Tom tells the truth, swearing with his “good” right hand. Tom's “good arm” parallels Atticus's “good eye,” and in both cases “good” signifies proper function and virtue.

Before Tom's mangled left arm is exposed, Scout questions Tom's innocence. She says that if Mayella's “right eye was blacked and she was beaten mostly on the right side of the face, it would tend to show that a left-handed person did it. […] But Tom Robinson could easily be left-handed, too. Like Mr. Heck Tate, I imagined a person facing me, went through a swift mental pantomime, and concluded that he might have held her with his right hand and pounded her with his left” (189). Again, the words “right” and “left” are repeated. Scout also uses the word “facing,” a directional word that represents the jury Tom faces and the truth the jury refuses to face.

Lee introduces a right-left dichotomy in the opening scene of To Kill a Mockingbird, a scene narrated many years after the events of the narrative proper. Scout says that Jem's “left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body […]” (9). Jem, like Tom, has an injured left arm and a healthy right arm. His hand turns at right angles, signifying his morally correct perspective. In the opening paragraph, Scout provides a framework for her story, disclosing that she will explain how Jem's accident occurred. As the plot unravels, readers are told how Jem hurt his arm. More important, readers come to understand Jem's moral development.

Immediately after Atticus shoots a rabid dog, Sheriff Tate runs to Atticus and taps “his finger on his forehead above his left eye” (105). He says, “You were a little to the right, Mr. Finch.” Atticus answers, “Always was […]” (105). Of course, Tate refers to the direction “right” as opposed to “center” or “left,” but symbolically, Atticus looks to the “right,” protects the neighborhood. The dog “walked erratically, as if his right legs were shorter than his left legs” (101). The dog's lame right legs symbolize malevolence, his danger to society.

As in instances where “right” opposes “left,” the term “right” designates that a specific spatial locale also has ethical undertones. Atticus tells Calpurnia that Tom stood “[r]ight in front of” the guards who shoot him (248). Tom stands both directly in front of the guards and on his own symbolic ethical ground. Inquiring if during the trial the children sat in the balcony of the courthouse, Miss Stephanie asks, “Wasn't it right close up there with all those—?” (227). Symbolically, “right” refers to the truth, the section of the courthouse where people sit who support Tom, Atticus, and racial equity.

The term “left” also denotes what remains, what is “left” of something. Scout says that the dog “had made up what was left of his mind,” turned around and began to walk toward the Finch's house (105). A few paragraphs later, Lee contrasts Atticus's mind with the dog's mind. After learning Atticus had once been called “Ol' One-Shot […] the deadest shot in Maycomb County” (106), Jem asks Miss Maudie why he never brags about his marksmanship talents. She answers, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents” (107). Here, the “right” mind literally refers to people who think straight, level-headed people—in this case, implying that Atticus is humble. Whereas the dog uses what is “left” of his mind to harm people, Atticus, in his “right” mind, exemplifies humility.

Atticus, Tom, and Jem represent moral virtue: Atticus uses his “right” mind and his “good, right” eye to defend Tom; Tom takes the oath with his “good, right” hand; and Jem, with his vigorous “right” arm, defends Tom. Contrarily, the rabid dog, Mayella, and Bob represent moral inequity. The dog's “left” legs are healthy; Mayella's “left” eye is healthy; and Bob is “left” handed. The rabid dog presents a physical threat to Maycomb County, but Mayella and Bob present a social threat—the perpetuation of racism. Atticus's virtue only enables him to eliminate the physical threat. That the jury convicts Tom in the end signals that Atticus loses his battle against racism.

Works Cited

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1960.

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