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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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What character traits of Atticus Finch are illustrated in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Character traits of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird include honesty, courage, fairness, and tolerance. Atticus's positive character traits are depicted by his thoughts, actions, and life lessons. Throughout the story, Lee portrays Atticus's positive attributes by illustrating how he responds to adversity and interacts with his children, family members, and neighbors. However, some readers find him too tolerant of the vitriolic racism displayed by his neighbors in Maycomb.

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The character traits of Atticus Finch include courage, compassion, intelligence, and tolerance. He is generally regarded as a positive character and as an excellent father and role model. However, the publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 opened up a debate about Atticus's character, with some readers and critics condemning him as a racist.

Confining the discussion to the text of To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, it seems reasonable to describe Atticus as a liberal and enlightened man of his time. He has to live alongside some extreme racists in Maycomb, and perhaps he is rather too tolerant of them and their racism for the comfort of many readers. He tells Scout that Walter Cunningham, who attempts to lynch Tom Robinson, is "basically a good man" and makes similar excuses for the virulently racist Mrs. Dubose. Some of his pronouncements on race relations now sound rather patronizing, as when he says,

There's nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro's ignorance.

These points should not detract from the fact that Atticus is essentially a noble character and that Maycomb would be a poorer place without him. Recent responses like the one by Sandra Schmuhl Long attached below that characterize Atticus merely as a racist are one-sided and take no account of the huge cultural changes that have taken place since 1960. On the other hand, they are a useful corrective to encomiastic portrayals of Atticus as an altogether saintly figure.

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In Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is depicted as a thoughtful, honest man, who is morally upright and tries his best to instill positive values in his children. Lee illustrates Atticus's positive character traits through his actions, relationships, and numerous life lessons.

Atticus practices tolerance by sympathizing with Mrs. Dubose, Walter Cunningham, and even the malevolent Bob Ewell. Atticus also encourages his children to treat others with respect and exercise perspective in order to sympathize and understand people. In chapter 3, Atticus tells Scout,

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 (Lee, 30).

Atticus is also a fair, humble man who believes that it is important to protect innocent, defenseless beings and people. Atticus not only tells Jem and Scout that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird but also lives his truth by valiantly defending Tom Robinson in front of a racist jury. He also instructs his children to leave Boo Radley alone and protects his community from a rabid dog.

Atticus is depicted as a conscientious, brave man who is not afraid to follow his heart and stand up for what is right regardless of peer pressure or the circumstances attached to his actions. Atticus shares his definition of real courage with Jem and Scout by saying,

—I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do (Lee, 115).

Atticus then demonstrates his courage by preventing a lynch mob from harming his client and defending Tom Robinson during a controversial trial. Scout and Jem admire their father and appreciate his honesty. They never hesitate to ask him anything, and they know that he will always support them. Atticus is an excellent father, lawyer, representative, and neighbor. He is the epitome of a sincere, morally upright man, which makes him one of literature's most beloved characters.

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Atticus Finch is one of the most famous literary characters known. Harper Lee goes to great detail to show us the kind of man he is. Jem and Scout don't see their father as anything special in the beginning, but we the readers, see from the very start, that Atticus is one of a kind.

Atticus is kind and fair. He is stern, but also very loving. He treats his children with respect and talks to them like they are adults. He answers all of their questions with honesty. He is always consistent, and doesn't waiver in his beliefs. Atticus is seen as the moral backbone in Maycomb. He fights for justice and teaches his children to do the same thing.

When Atticus takes the case of Tom Robinson, the town starts talking about him defending a black man. Jem and Scout hear this talk and ask Atticus about it, and he answers them in the most beautiful way, to teach them that you have to live with yourself first.

"They're entitled to think that, they're entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." 

Atticus is telling his children that he has to live with what his choices are before he please anyone else. He fights for the rights of people who are cheated. Atticus knows that Tom will never get a fair trial, because he is black, but he works his hardest and proves that the man is innocent. After Tom is convicted, Atticus tries to teach his children that there will always be people that treat black men wrong and that is not right.

"As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men everyday 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."

Every so often, you run across a character, that will always stay with you. That is the true art of a writer. Harper Lee did her job with the character of Atticus Finch. He will live in our lives as if we really know him.

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Atticus is a pleasantly complex character. He is a responsible and loving father, a man who concentrates on essences, not externals, a brave man, and a clear and ethical thinker. (Can you tell I approve of him?)


You can see these qualities throughout the book. He faces a rabid dog (brave, responsible). He sees Scout for who she is, not what the community thinks girls should be. He defends African Americans when the community says he should not, and so on.

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The fiftieth anniversary edition of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: HarperLuxe, 2010) presents some of the following traits of Atticus Finch on the following pages:

  • His diplomacy in dealing with his children (page 4).
  • His acquisition of a law degree (page 5).
  • His wisdom in counseling his clients (page 6).
  • His support for Calpurnia in her disputes with the children (page 8).
  • His tendency not to talk about the Radleys (page 16).
  • His hard work and devotion to reading (page 27).
  • His willingness to accept non-cash payments for his legal services when people could not pay cash (page 34).
  • His knowledge of agriculture (page 38).
  • His respect for Calpurnia’s intelligence (page 39).
  • His pleasure in reading with Scout (page 47).
  • His distaste for the Ewells, whom he considers disreputable citizens (49).
  • His willingness to be firm in disciplining his children when he thinks they have done something wrong (65-66).

Preparing the rest of such a list should prove very easy. Simply move through the book, look for references to “Atticus,” see how he behaves, what he says, or what is said about him, and then generalize on the basis of that evidence, as in the examples above.

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To add to the excellent response above, I would add empathy. Remember Atticus's mantra - to crawl inside someone else's skin before judging them. Atticus consistently does this in all instances - it is why he has Jem read to Mrs. Dubose, it is why he does not get angry with Mr Ewell when he spits in his face, it is why he puts up with his sister's digs at his parenting skills and his decision to defend Tom, it is why he makes the deal with Scout so they can still read so her first grade teacher doesn't get angry at her. In doing this, Atticus always leads by example and follows through with his actions.

Another trait is that Atticus is honest. I think the best example of this when he believes Jem was responsible for Ewell's death. Atticus doesn't hesitate to begin planning the trial and what will happen. However, it is Tate who finally gets Atticus to believe that Jem did not do it.

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Atticus is both a product of his time as well as ahead of his time. He does not crusade to change the prevailing racial and sexist bigotry of Maycomb, but in his personal dealings he is scrupulously fair and just. He has the ability to see things from the other person's point of view. This applies to his dealings with Bob Ewell just as much as it does to Calpurnia and Tom Robinson. Miss Maudie sums Atticus up when she tells Scout that Atticus is the same person whether he is in a court room or just going about his daily business. Integrity, a sense of justice and fairness, honesty and basic human decency are all traits that characterise Atticus Finch and have made him a benchmark in the legal profession to this day.

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