University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Defining a Hero: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus Finch’s Heroism
The definition of a hero is varied and intricate. While there are certain types of heroism such as altruistic heroism, or other machismo bravado this paper will seek to find a definition to the specific heroism as exhibited in Harper Lee’s character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. A discussion of the definition of hero according to literary terms (as defined by the Greeks, Aristotle and Plato – especially using his philosophy on morality) will be used to set up the paper in order to discover what makes Atticus Finch a classic hero.
Such issues as racism and bravery against prejudice will strongly support this thesis claim. The idea of heroism in the form of a literary character has its roots with Greek drama. This drama expressed heroes as having a major flaw. It was this flaw which at once destroyed them but also allowed them to be human and therefore be able to be labeled as heroes. In finding this definition them the readers of Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird must consider what odds are against Atticus Finch and what flaws or flaw he has in his character that allow him to be a human hero.
Aristotle’s definition for a hero is one who is not in control of his own fate, but instead is ruled by the gods in one fashion or another – in the case of Atticus Finch his fate and the fate of his trial is determined by the jury. It is then the jury who exhibit control over Finch’s fate and the fate of his client. Although Atticus is a hero of Lee’s story, he must be considered a tragic hero for his bravery is met by opposition and it is this opposition that ultimately wins the battle of justice versus prejudice in Harper Lee’s novel.
The tragic hero for Aristotle is tragic because of their lack of control or will in the face of their predetermined future and downfall – a predetermined future which is well established in the bigotry of the jurors in the court case scenes whereby Atticus is shown to be a hero as well as showing his ultimate downfall in the jury convicting Tom Robinson of rape. A great tragic flaw (hamartia) is the hero’s devil may care attitude at the beginning of each story, and then their despondency and stagnation of hope that meets them at the end of the play.
This is shown with Atticus’ belief that justice will prevail in the courtroom and his revelation of Mayella Ewell making sexual passes toward Tom and her drunken father Bob Ewell catching her in the act. Thus, hope seems to be lost for the hero. Therefore, although Atticus Finch may be defined as a hero his heroism character traits in the novel still is marked by failure. While Atticus is defined as a hero, his heroism is determined by subjective narration.
Harper Lee tells his story through the voice of Scout, Atticus’ daughter, therefore, the idealism with which a daughter has for their father is already in play in determining the character traits of heroism in Atticus Finch (this can be strongly seen when Scout fights the other kids at the playground for calling her father a ‘nigger lover’). Although there is a sincere amount of idealism in play in the novel in regards to Scout’s viewpoint of her father, there are other elements of the story which aid in defining Atticus’ heroism.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird racism is ubiquitous with the young culture in the town. Just as Atticus is a lawyer in the book, Scout the narrator and child depicts the scene of racism thusly, “My fists were clenched I was ready to make fly. Cecil Jacobs had announced the day before that Scout Finch’s daddy defended niggers. ” Though Scout continually defends Atticus on the playground and in other parts of town, the racist remarks do not stop. Even Scout’s cousin Francis is overwhelmingly supplied with racist remarks, “At a safe distance her called, `He’s nothin’ but a nigger-lover’.”
In Scout’s defense of her father the reader is already subjected to her viewpoint on Atticus being a hero – and a hero is made that much grander when they are up against the evil majority of a town and they have the support of their family. It is perhaps both of these elements; that of going against the odds and of Scout’s unquestionable devotion to her father’s cause, that make Atticus Finch a hero. It is in racism, and the reality of that prejudice that the entire town’s lives are changed, and the political arena of the courtroom shows itself as discriminatory.
It is against this charge of discrimination that Atticus may be defined as a hero, and it is also his failure against this prejudice that makes him a tragic hero. Modern literature juxtaposes a character’s dwindling faith in themselves and reality. Atticus’ reality is that he is trying to save a person in a town wherein they are already found guilty by the color of their skin. There are elements of justice and finding the truth beneath the guise of bigotry that play a major part in support of Atticus’ being a hero.
His unwavering pursuit of justice against these odds is what chiefly finds him out to become a hero not in his son’s vision of a father (in that subjective viewpoint) but in a more universal definition: Heroism through moral judgment. In classic Greek drama, Plato’s idea of morality is presented as rational action. Morality isn’t a free will that governs humanity’s actions, but rather it is universal reason (life as a whole) that dictates action, thus in is found Atticus’ heroism.
In his moral judgment in defending Tom Robinson and even going against a lynch mob in his pursuit of that justice create in Lee’s story a dynamic force of this moral reality. In Atticus’ is awakened the sense of racial heroism, as Crespino states “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. ” (Crespino 9).
It is perhaps this one pursuit that most clearly defines the type of heroism found in Atticus Finch’s character, that of a seeker and of a tragic hero. It is in his morality that such a definition can most succinctly be expounded. Human nature is a nature of reason, not strictly adherent to passion or feelings, but rather to a higher calling – it is this higher calling in which readers find Atticus’ heroism, his morality despite an adverse reality. Morality then, becomes the crux of finding heroism in Harper Lee’s novel.
Morality is reason. This is not to say that Plato and other classic Greek writers were ascetic; rather they placed passion, and feelings in their plays but the ethics of humanity being tied into the good of a person. Being virtuous, or good leads a character to happiness or release at the end of a story, but it is this lack of release that allows Atticus’ specific type of heroism to exist. He goes into the court case fighting for Tom’s innocence with full knowledge of what his opposition is in that town.
The word for this given by Plato is eudemonism, which means blissful and it is the lack of this eudemonism that makes Atticus such a striking and memorable literary character. Atticus was a man filled with faith in human nature; an optimist/realist of some sorts. Plato’s philosophy of human nature doing evil was that a person only does evil in ignorance, for he believed everyone, just as himself wants only what is good, which is Atticus’ attitude in the novel and the quality that makes him a great lawyer is not a hero.
In modern literature, the lesson is not about escapism but coming to terms with life and making a fundamental choice, a moral choice. Choices can be broken down into good and evil in modern literature in defining a hero, or to be more exact they can be dichotomized into heroic and a state of succumbing to one’s own humanity. The tragic hero may witness evil deeds and be in a constant state of exposure to them, but in the end of a novel, virtue is heeded.
The source of a character doing evil or good is brought about by unlimited desire. Something that goes unmitigated becomes possessive of that person and they in turn want, and want, without satiation which is what Mayella’s character exhibits. This is when the appetitive part of the soul (the part of the soul that wants sex, food, etc. ) overtakes the rational (part seeking truth, and reason) of the soul resulting in moral weakness or akrasia – it is a weakness that does not belong to the character traits of Atticus Finch.
By giving Atticus such moral aberrant characters as Mayella and her father, Lee is making Atticus’ heroism that much more pronounced. It is not then self-interest that leads a person to happiness, and there is a definite equilibrium between the allowance of each part of the soul guided by reason, and asceticism. Atticus was a not a Sophist. Without the guidance of moral reason then a state of chaos would ensue entailing an everyman for himself type of attitude which is what the mob in the story renders.
Thus, happiness in the novel can only be achieved when that hedonistic attitude is vanquished which occurs when Bob Ewell “falls on his own knife”. This scene helps in making Atticus less of a tragic hero and more of an altruistic hero. Morality must be shown as adhering to individual interests. Plato did not agree with the type of hedonism exhibited by the Sophists, who thought human nature was an extension of the animal world. Instead, Plato states that the nature of man is reason; and in this reason exists an organized society constructed by reason.
This expresses Atticus’ own viewpoint in the story. In understanding this viewpoint and accepting that Atticus strived for reason, that essence of a lawyer to demand justice when there is no shadow of a doubt for a man’s innocence, the reader can better understand the impetus behind Atticus’ moral actions. Happiness for the rational man in modern literature then comes into fruition by governing their more base, animal, desires, which are irrational; it is with Atticus that such states of humanity are more succinctly defined.
This morality is extended into the realm of society because of human interaction. Therefore, if a man is to be the pinnacle of reason, and morality, and happiness, then the society that he lives and associates must then also exhibit such a moral temperance. This is the faith by which Atticus bases his lawyer’s argument. If then a society is blinded by hedonism, or pure desire of self, a man in that society has no hope for personal happiness because of lack of morality, reason, and thus fully succumbing to akrasia as can be seen in Atticus and especially Tom’s lives.
The concept of good and evil twined together is the elixir of the modern novel; writers breed fears from dreams, the hidden wants of subconscious become known through their character’s actions. Writing and reading novels is a revelation into that unsaid facet of the mind; the mute archetype finally is given voice, and in a way bears witness by both being involved in the action and telling of the story. It is no wonder that lawyers today base their own judgment on that of Atticus’ (a fictional character) moral judgment and decision making.
In the arena of heroism, when a character becomes the basis of real life people’s morality, then the status of a hero is cemented. Modern literature is the truth of life and self reflected through plays and characters. Realism is the liquor by which Harper Lee is exemplified. In realism, the writer is stating that circumstances are the focal point of human contingencies. This is especially true for Lee’s Atticus Finch. In this downtrodden representation of everyman the audience is presented with life at its entire naked state, a hero whose battle is lost.
That is the promise of modern literature; veracity, despite the overwhelming depression of life and its deception toward everyman. Writers are honest in their writing, and in modern literature realism and not heroic standards of Greek drama but the Achilles heel is what is depicted. Whether or not the novel ends on a happy or sad note, the point is choice – despite Atticus being a tragic hero his strength remains in sticking to that choice. Modern literature gives the audience no illusions about harsh reality, but it also gives the difference between fate and circumstance and makes a hero.