Atticus Finch The Hero Of To Kill A Mockingbird Is Rated The Greatest American Hero

Published: 10th September 2009
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Who is the greatest American hero? Brad Pitt? Arnold? John Wayne, James Dean, Clint Eastwood...?

Answer: the hero of Harper Lee's immortal novel To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch.

Forget about Captain Ahab, Rambo, Rocky, Mike Hammer, Rooster Cogburn...or if you are a political junkie: George Washington and Abe Lincoln. Pound for pound Americans prefer Atticus over anybody who can be somebody.

In our country when we don't assist in a crime we may be prosecuted under the "depraved indifference" statutes. Ordinary citizens tend not to get involved, and that is understandable even though morally indefensible. Yes, ordinary citizens. But Atticus Finch was no ordinary citizen but an extraordinary man'"'a hero'"'or as we say in New York City'"'a mensch!

When a man sees injustice when others don't, that makes him a prototype.

And that is what Harper Lee created, a prototype of a man who will be revered for the ages to come by both adults and children. Whether we read the book or see the film, we know we are in the presence of justice, love, and fairness--the good.

What makes the story even more attractive is that it is told by a child'"'the endearing Scout. In this respect, Harper Lee joins the company of other literary geniuses (Jo Rowlings, Mark Twain, Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte) who made us see the world as children do: unfiltered by age, experience, and corruption.

Scout and her brother Jem, like most children, underestimate their father's worth; both of them find that their father lacks many qualities in his "abilities and manliness:"

Our father didn't do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. Atticus did not drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in a garage, or do anything that could possible arouse the admiration of anyone.

In other words, Atticus was worthless in the Scout and Jem's eyes.

As readers we may agree with Scout's factual assessments: he is old, sedentary, quiet to the point of taciturnity, and uninteresting. But unlike the children, we also hold our breaths for even worse indignities, which we know the hero will have to surmount.

Scout further observes:

Besides that, he wore glasses. He was nearly blind in his left eye, and said left eyes were the curse of the Finches. Whenever he wanted to see something well, he turned his head and looked from his right eye.

Every time I re-read this novel, I'm always enchanted by the above passage. Children and people in general carry prejudices, and one of those unspoken prejudices is that people who wear glasses are immediately classified one notch below clear sighted people. The scene also captures --through the eyes of the children-- the fact that we all know someone who squints and turns and focuses with his better eye. These attentions to detail grown-ups lose and quite never recover.

And here comes the humiliating part for Scout and Jem:

He [Atticus] did not do the things our schoolmates' fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poke or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the living room and read.

But as the story unfolds, we as fair readers find in Atticus Finch a man that is larger than life. We find wholeness, balance or harmony in his nobility of heart, as well as the aura of courage and love for humanity.

In one of his conversations with Scout he tells her: "...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." Indeed, the hero has to be a man of conscience.

The character is larger than life not because we are told he is by the narrator, but because we read in between the lines and follow his actions, his thoughts, his ideals. What is admirable in the character is that his values are universal values. A man moved by his conscience and ready to take on the majority rule of his town, his region, and his country, can only be a madman or a man of right.

Just as the Greek god Prometheus suffered eternal damnation for bringing fire and light to the humanity, Atticus Finch more than to simply curse the darkness of his personal demise, lit a match and brought the light of understanding to that little Southern town, Macomb, in the State of Alabama, in the deep South of the United States.

Rather than vanity, we find in Atticus Finch modesty, the quiet rather than the loud, the even not the odd, and never evil but only the splendor of a virtuous heart.

When a hero embraces a higher good -such as equality, or freedom-regardless of personal consequences, be that punishment, ostracism, or damnation, the hero then transcends his humanity. Atticus Finch belongs in the pantheon of American gods.

In a way I am happy that Harper Lee didn't write another masterpiece. One is enough.

Retired. Former investment banker, Columbia University-educated, Vietnam Vet (67-68).
For the writing techniques I use, see Mary Duffy's e-book: Sentence Openers.
To read my book reviews of the Classics visit my blog: Writing To Live

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