Abiding One's Conscience in To Kill a Mockingbird

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On page 41 of “To Kill A Mockingbird” a compromise has been struck between Atticus Finch and his daughter Jean Louise (Scout) Finch. The compromise was needed for Scout to have the right mindset to willingly go to school. A young new teacher, Miss Caroline is responsible for Scout’s ghastly first day of school. According to Scout, Miss Caroline is no more than 21 years old, accounting for her lack of teaching experience. She is naive, insensitive and simple minded. She thinks she knows it all. Miss Caroline misunderstands the social order of Maycomb and she punishes Scout for trying to explain it to her. This, in turn, leads to Scout deciding it would be better if she didn’t go to school, but rather she would stay home and learn from Atticus and Calpurnia about how to live. Then Atticus asked Scout, “Do you know what a compromise is?”

“Bending the law?”, replied Scout. Atticus informed Scout that “a compromise is an agreement reached by mutual concessions.” Then they agreed that if Scout concedes the necessity of going to school every day, Atticus will continue to read with her every night. On page 99 Scout, as the narrator, tells the reader that despite her compromise with Atticus, she has been trying intermittently to stay home instead of going to school.

The idea of a compromise contributes to the entire story in many ways but the scenario involving a compromise during the Tom Robinson trial stands out the most. Atticus had just lost the Tom Robinson trial, but he makes a compromise because even though he was defeated, he knew he could appeal the guilty verdict that was agreed upon by the jury; he also knew he had made a difference in Maycomb. He made people think; he made people question their initial views on racism as a whole. The fact that it took approximately six hours for the jury to reach a guilty verdict was the most significant of the informal Maycomb forward-thinking movement to oppose racial prejudice. Atticus started this movement simply by defending the innocent life of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

On page 99, Scout confessed to the reader that despite the compromise she tried more than once to stay home instead of going to school. This is a foreshadow for the situation before the Tom Robinson trial when an old bunch of men from the northern part of Maycomb county come to lynch Tom Robinson. They are stopped by Scout after she inadvertently leads them to see the situation from Atticus’s perspective. They came to see that Atticus is just trying to protect an innocent black man from being put to death on false rape accusations. The Tom Robinson lynching attempt by an old bunch of men was the result of human error, no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. It’s how we learn from those experiences that matters.

Scout’s narration throughout the novel shows her view on the Radley family and Arthur (Boo) Radley in particular. She describes Boo Radley as a “malevolent phantom” among her other critical remarks. The adjective “malevolent” describes her preconceived notion of Boo Radley having or showing intention to do evil to others. This whole section from page 10-15 of chapter one of “To Kill A Mockingbird” paints a sad story and perspective on Boo Radley. Scout, as a naive young girl, believed everything that Miss Stephanie Crawford, the neighbourhood gossip had to express about Boo Radley. Miss Stephanie Crawford’s fabricated stories about Boo Radley corrupt Scout’s perspective. However, as Scout gains knowledge and matures, her observations and inferences become more wholesome.

Boo Radley’s true character is portrayed when he leaves the comfort and isolation of his home and saves Scout and her brother, Jeremy Atticus (Jem) Finch, from violent and drunk old man Mr. Ewell. Scout has an epiphany, where she understands that Boo Radley is misunderstood. Boo Radley demonstrates his will to do the right thing, despite his rough situation. From Scout’s point of view, he is no longer a malevolent phantom but rather a wholehearted, timid and soft-spoken man. Scout’s new perspective proves her maturing over the course of the novel. Harper Lee suggests that much like the Tom Robinson trial and Maycomb’s improvement in terms of racism; Scout is following in the footsteps of Aunt Alexandra by starting to act a little bit more ladylike, or just enough to make Aunt Alexandra happy. Over the course of the novel Boo Radley and Scout both grow individually and collectively.

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Atticus explains to Scout that, “You can never really understand a person until you climb into his shoes and walk around in it.” Which in the context of the situation means that Scout should try to see things from Miss Caroline’s perspective. We can infer that Miss Caroline must have like Scout had a bad day. Miss Caroline got completely humiliated from people half her age and it all comes down to the fact that she’s not from Maycomb County, and if you’re not from Maycomb County you’re going to have a hard time living there. Everybody knows everybody.

Even after Atticus was defeated in the Tom Robinson trial he still got re-elected to the state legislature. Atticus is known as the moral backbone of Maycomb because he is so fair and reasonable. People turn to him in times of distress, an example would be judge John Taylor handing him the case to defend Tom Robinson. Therefore, Miss Caroline is not really fitting in with the locals who all seem to know each other much too well. Atticus tells Scout that, “You can never really understand a person until you climb into his shoes and walk around in it.” Because to fairly look at Miss Caroline you have to look back at yourself through her eyes. You have to put yourself in someone’s shoes before you judge them. This quote contributes to the bigger picture because one of the most important parts of “To Kill A Mockingbird” was when everyone came to the Maycomb County Jail and prepared to lynch Tom Robinson. They had not put themselves into the shoes of their victim, the innocent Tom Robinson until Scout talked to Mr. Cunningham, the father of Walter Cunningham, one of Scout’s classmates. By talking to Mr. Cunningham one on one, the men were snapped back into reality and decided to put themselves into Tom Robinson’s shoes, Tom is an innocent man and they realized that just before it was too late and they took justice into their own hands. That’s why you can never really understand a person until you climb into his shoes and walk around in it.

Atticus tells Scout not to kill a mockingbird with her new air rifle because it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. This quote by Atticus, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” means that mockingbirds didn’t do anything but sing for everyone to enjoy. Atticus stated that Scout can shoot all the cans she can see, but she cannot kill a mockingbird. The reason for this quote is because to Atticus and even to Harper Lee as the author of “To Kill A Mockingbird” mockingbirds represent innocence. As Miss Maudie explains to Scout, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” The idea that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird is so relevant to the novel that it is the novel’s namesake.

There are multiple mockingbirds in this story including Scout and Jem because they had to deal with lots of problems related to the Robinson’s trial, such as Bob Ewell’s attempted slaughter of the two of them using a kitchen knife. Dill could be considered a mockingbird due to his terrible family life with a family that doesn’t really seem to care about him all that much. However, the most important mockingbird in “To Kill A Mockingbird” is Tom Robinson who ended up being accused of rape because of the colour of his skin after doing something so similar to the beautiful singing of the mockingbird: helping a teenager with her chores. He went to trial and lost, was sentenced to death, arrived at the prison and got shot 17 times. Sounds like whoever shot those bullets was not listening to Atticus’s speech about not shooting mockingbirds. There was a clear reference to Tom Robinson’s death in Mr. Underwood’s story about the senseless slaughter of the songbirds. Which ties everything together. The statement “to kill Tom Robinson” is synonymous with “to kill a mockingbird”.

Miss Maudie tells Scout that even though Atticus has immense talent with the rifle in his hand he is very humble. In her own words, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talent.” This means that Atticus feels bad that he has a gift from god to be able to shoot bullets right on target. His skill was so good that he earned the nickname “one shot finch.” Atticus is very humble so he doesn’t want people to know his skill in the art of marksmanship. The relevance this idea has on the bigger picture is related to Tom Robinson who as a black person was willing enough to help Mayella Ewell. Humble enough to not charge a cent and humble enough to not require recognition of any sort for his services. But what distinguishes the mockingbird from the normal humble guy is the fact that the mockingbird ended up being killed. Atticus was just frowned upon for defending Tom Robinson. Tom Robinson was slaughtered. Much like mockingbirds Tom Robinson never took pride in his talents. Because people in their right minds never take pride in their talents.

Atticus decided to tell his children about the Tom Robinson trial, the significance of the trial and the importance of staying calm during the process of emotionally coping with the stress of everyone being your enemy throughout the trial. Atticus knew that Scout and Jem could take the criticism verbally and sometimes physically as long as they were prepared for what was to come. So Atticus told them and they listened to the talk about how controversial this trial is in Maycomb. They need to keep their calm and be cool and collected during the trial. He told Scout not to fight anyone on the topic of the trial. Then Scout told Atticus she had heard that he must be wrong because most people seem to think he is wrong. To which Atticus responds with the statement “The only thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Atticus knows that even though there is lots of peer pressure in the world and there is lots of thinking collectively and not enough thinking individually.

His skills at being the moral backbone of Maycomb County are again represented in the fact that he believes that everyone is entitled to their opinions. Everyone must respect each other’s opinion but everyone should have an opinion and that opinion must not abide by the majority rule but rather it must abide by your perspective and your complete and honest opinion on the subject. Atticus knows he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t take the Tom Robinson case. The contribution this quote by Atticus has on the bigger picture is that people know that Tom Robinson is innocent when they listen to themselves, but they won’t listen to their consciences. They are going along with the majority of people on the subject. That majority rule comes with the verdict that Tom Robinson is guilty. For that reason, Atticus reminds Scout that the only thing that does abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience. Peer pressure and blind spots cause people to abide by the majority rule and lynch Tom Robinson. Peer pressure and abiding by the majority rule made the only Cunningham agree with the jury and right then and there they had reached a verdict. If that one Cunningham had stuck with his conscience and had not abided by the majority rule, a guilty verdict might not have been the case. That’s why Atticus made a compromise and dealt with the loss of the trial. Atticus knew there is more work to do but he had made a difference. Because once people think logically they will realize that Tom Robinson is an innocent mockingbird. As a great lawyer once told his daughter, “The only thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

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