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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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How does Atticus feel discussing "gentle breeding" with Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is insincere when he delivers his lecture to Scout and Jem about their family's "gentle breeding." He is trying to appease Aunt Alexandra, who is alarmed at how little pride the children have in their family heritage. When Scout becomes upset at Atticus's insincerity, he relents and acts like himself again.

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Atticus's heart isn't really is it when he gives Scout and Jem a lecture on the Finch family's "gentle breeding." He's really just going through the motions. Unlike Aunt Alexandra, he isn't a snob. That being the case, it's fair to say that he's really not the right person to be delivering this lecture. But Alexandra has insisted that he should drum into Scout and Jem the importance of their family's heritage, and to humor her that's precisely what Atticus will do.

All things considered, Atticus doesn't really have much choice under the circumstances. In any case, if Alexandra were to deliver this lecture, then the children wouldn't listen. Ever the gentleman, Atticus wants to spare his sister such a potentially humiliating experience.

But it's clear from the start that the lecture isn't a good idea. Atticus doesn't believe a word he's saying, and his lack of sincerity is blatantly obvious, even to someone of Scout's tender age. As she listens to her father's increasingly awkward lecture, she realizes it's almost as if Atticus has become a different person He is certainly not the real Atticus she knows and loves. When Atticus snaps at Scout when her attention slips, it's even more out of character than his stern, pompous lecture.

Thankfully, the real Atticus soon returns and all is well in the Finch household once more, a household where being yourself is considered much more important than "gentle breeding".

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Aunt Alexandra, a model of white Southern conventionality, makes waves when she joins the Finch household in Maycomb. She is alarmed at how little the children know of their family background and how little pride they have in it. In a comic scene, when she tries to tell them of what a wonderful man their cousin Joshua was, showing them a meditation he wrote that was published, they counter with a story of Joshua as a hothead who tried to shoot his college president. He was only stopped when the gun exploded in his hand. As a result of the children's irreverence about Joshua, Aunt Alexandra insists that Atticus instill in the children a sense of pride in their ancestors.

Atticus makes a lame attempt at this which the children see straight through. Scout is upset at Atticus's insincerity and wonders what has become of her father. He finally admits he hasn't changed and doesn't see much point in the Southern custom of exalting the family heritage.

This story illustrates how far Atticus is from mainstream white Southern thinking of the 1930s. He is not tied to the past in the way they are. He knows families want to look back to the "glory days" because they no longer have any money, but he is more interested in looking to the future. He cares more about what people can accomplish for themselves than what their ancestors did.

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In chapter 13, Aunt Alexandra criticizes her brother for not teaching his children about their impressive family heritage. In an attempt to please his sister, Atticus begins to elaborate on the Finch family history. Jem and Scout are confused and worried once Atticus begins talking to them about their family history in a serious manner. Atticus starts by telling his children that they are the products of several generations of "gentle breeding." However, Atticus offends Scout by telling her to "Stop that noise" when she begins to lose interest in his message. Scout then cries and runs into her father's stomach, which brings the conversation to an end. Atticus then tells his children to forget everything he told them about their family heritage and makes a self-deprecating joke as he leaves the room. Overall, Atticus feels foolish and insincere when he attempts to deliver his lecture about "gentle breeding."

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Aunt Alexandra moves into the Finch household at the beginning of Chapter 13. Alexandra feels that is necessary to teach Jem and Scout about their family’s history in order to instill a sense of pride in them. Atticus feels the opposite of Alexandra and could care less about their family history. After Alexandra hears about the funny story of Cousin Joshua Atticus told the children, she confronts him about teaching the children properly about their heritage. Atticus says,

“Your aunt has asked me to try and impress upon you and Jean Louise that you are not from run-of-the-mill people, that you are the product of several generations’ gentle breeding---.” (13.177)

Atticus tries his best to act serious when he begins his lecture to Jem and Scout, but feels awkward and uneasy. When Scout tears up because he is acting strange and unlike himself, Atticus tells the children to forget it. Atticus thinks it’s stupid to worry so much about impressing the family’s history upon the children at such a young age. They ask him if he wants them to remember everything the Finches are supposed to do, and Atticus tells them to forget it.

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