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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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How does Harper Lee develop the character of Atticus Finch throughout To Kill a Mockingbird?

To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the eyes of the young girl, Scout. The reader sees how Atticus develops in the eyes of a child. Atticus is seen as an old and weak father at the beginning of the novel. Scout does not realize her father's true moral strength until almost the end of the story when she realizes that it isn't physical strength that matters most, but proper morals.

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Harper Lee shows readers all of the characters in Maycomb through the eyes of a young child, Scout Finch. Readers see how characters interact with Scout; we share in what Scout sees, hears, and experiences. Early in the novel, Scout describes Atticus as a reserved older man. Her relationship with her father seems distant in some ways; this is particularly demonstrated by the fact that both Scout and Jem call their father by his first name: Atticus.

Scout begins chapter 10 with the exaggerated lines,

"Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. . . . Our father didn't do anything. . . . Besides that, he wore glasses. He did not do the things our schoolmates' fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the living room and read."

Scout thought that her father was a very old, boring, and weak individual at the start of the story. Though Atticus is far from actually being feeble, Scout recognizes that he is older than many of her friends' fathers. Additionally, Atticus considers himself too old to play football, a very common southern past time. He tells her he would "break his neck if he did, he was too old for that sort of thing" (ch. 10).

Scout does not appreciate her father's differences from the rest of his community at the start of the novel. She wishes he demonstrated his strength and bravery by going hunting and playing football. Scout summarizes her early thoughts about her father in a conversation with Miss Maudie:

"Atticus can't do anything." (ch. 10)

Atticus seems to doubt his own strength and abilities at times. For instance, when Mr. Heck Tate asks Atticus to shoot the rabid dog (Tim Johnson), Atticus responds,

"I haven't shot a gun in thirty years—" (ch. 10)

Like Scout, Atticus seems to doubt his own strength in this scene. However, soon later he shows great confidence in defending Tom Robinson. Unlike the film version, which shows Atticus reluctantly accepting the case, Atticus boldly decides to defend Tom Robinson, despite the town's dislike of his decision. He explains to Scout:

"I couldn't go to church and worship God if I didn't try to help that man. . . . The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." (ch. 11)

While Scout may not understand or appreciate her father's differences early on, she begins to see his boldness and moral strength throughout the rest of the novel. Atticus shows Scout that it isn't a person's physical strength but his/her moral strength that matters most. By the end of the story, after seeing her dad defend Tom Robinson despite popular opinions, Scout learns to appreciate her father's moral strength. Additionally, readers see more and more moments that show the closeness between Atticus, Scout, and Jem. Though the children call their father by his first name, which is unusual, they clearly have a close relationship. One scene where this is seen is in chapter 26 when Scout tries to climb into her father's lap when she needs comfort:

I wanted Atticus . . . I went to him and tried to get in his lap. Atticus smiled. "You're getting so big now, I'll just have to hold a part of you." He held me close.

Both Scout and Jem go to their father to discuss their questions and to be comforted as they face several hard experiences. As the novel progresses, both children learn to respect their father all the more. As Atticus resists the popular opinions of Maycomb to defend Tom Robinson, the children learn to admire Atticus's great strength of character.

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Atticus Finch, as a character, is given development through some limited exposition of his background, through certain episodes that offer a glimpse into his fears, and through contrast with his sister, Aunt Alexandra. 

Like most of the characters in the novel, Atticus Finch does not change over the course of the novel. He is, however, developed and deepened as a character. As we see the action of the story through Scout's eyes, we also see new information about Atticus Finch through the filter of his daughter. 

One example of new information about Atticus comes when he has to shoot a rabid dog on the street. Scout and Jem had no idea that their father is or was the "best shot" in Maycomb. This fact helps to suggest that Atticus Finch is a man of great restraint and a deep sense of fairness. 

Scout admires Atticus for his shooting talent, but Jem admires him for his gentlemanly restraint.

One particular episode in the novel offers an insight into Atticus' fears of losing his children. When they arrive in the midst of the mob outside of the jail, Atticus is uncharacteristically overwhelmed by the moment. He later articulates that his fear of losing them over presenting a bad example to them and losing their respect. 

Finally, through contrast with his sister, Atticus shows his demeanor, his patience, and eventually shows the emotional strain of the trial. 

Atticus has tried to be patient and understanding with his sister, but in this chapter he almost gives in to anger. He restrains himself, however, and Scout notices his feelings only as a subtle change in his behavior towards Alexandra, a “digging in.”

In these ways, Atticus Finch is developed as a character. The reader is given information about his past and made witness to events that both test and prove his character. 

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Scout and Jem's father may be one of the most likeable, inspiring characters in literature.  He is a liberal, tolerant, educated man in a community that is still rooted, in many ways, in the traditions and prejudices of the Old South.  The wisdom found in his words have led him to be one of the most oft-quoted characters in literature.  Although he is a widow, his parenting is generally strong, consistent, and always with an eye toward developing Scout and Jem's consciences and a strong sense of justice.

Atticus's definition of true courage is one that readers tend to remember when deconstructing his character; he tells his children on one occasion that courage means "knowing you're licked before you begin, but you see it through no matter what".  He insisted that both kids learn this lesson when he assigned them to read to the morphine addicted Mrs. Dubose; when she died, he commented that "She was a great lady", to Scout and Jem's mortification, explaining that she was adamant about dying morphine-free. 

Commensurate with Atticus's strong sense of conscience and courage is his determination to see the other side of every situation, telling his children that "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view".  He mentions this to them several times throughout the novel, and the only time this advice doesn't serve him well is when he assumes that Bob Ewell will get over the humiliation he endured at the hands of Atticus in the courtroom; Atticus was not able to successfully put himself fully in Bob Ewell's shoes, because, of course, if he had, he would have foreseen that Ewell might try to harm his family. 


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