'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Go Set a Watchman' Quotes

Atticus Finch's words reveal his sometimes conflicting character

Harper Lee on November 5, 2007
Harper Lee.

 Public Domain/Wikipedia Commons

Atticus Finch is a principal character in both of American writer Harper Lee's novels, the beloved classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960) and the achingly painful "Go Set a Watchman" (2015).

In "To Kill a Mockingbird," Finch is a strong, fully developed character, a man of principle who is willing to risk his life and his career in the pursuit of justice for wrongly accused Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman. Finch cares deeply about the rights of individuals regardless of race, making him an important role model for his daughter, Scout, from whose perspective both novels are written, and his son, Jem. Atticus Finch is one of the best known and most beloved father figures in American literature.

In "Go Set a Watchman," which is set after "Mockingbird" but was written before it, Finch is old and somewhat feeble. At this point he is more concerned about the law and justice than about equality for all people. He doesn't believe that he should surround himself with like-minded people and attends meetings of a white supremacist group, though he doesn't hold prejudices against blacks.

Here are some quotes from "To Kill a Mockingbird" that illustrate the characteristics embodied in Finch:

Prejudice

"As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day 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." ("Mockingbird," Chapter 23)

Finch is talking to Jem about the nearly hopeless situation Robinson faces, accused of a crime he didn't commit and unable to get a fair trial given the nature of race relations, particularly in the South, at that point in American history. Racism is a dominant theme in "Mockingbird," and Finch doesn't turn away from it.

Individual Responsibility

"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." ("Mockingbird," Chapter 11)

Finch believes that democracy might determine how a group of people react, but it can't control what each person thinks. In other words, the jury might find Robinson guilty, but it can't make everyone believe that he is. That's where the individual conscience comes into play.

Innocence

"I'd rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." ("Mockingbird," Chapter 10)

Miss Maudie, a neighbor respected by Finch and his children, later explains to Scout what Finch meant: Mockingbirds don't eat people's gardens or nest in corn cribs, she said. "The only thing they do is sing their hearts out for us." The pure innocence exemplified by a mockingbird should be rewarded. Later Boo Radley, a recluse and symbol of innocence who saves Scout and Jem, is compared to a mockingbird.

Courage

"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 anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.” ("Mockingbird," Chapter 11)

Finch is explaining to Jem the difference between the outward appearance of courage and true courage, which requires mental and emotional fortitude. He is referring to Mrs. Dubose, an acerbic, elderly woman known for her temper, but Finch respects her for facing her morphine addiction alone and living and dying on her own terms. He demonstrates this type of courage himself when he defends Robinson against a racist town.

Raising Children

"When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don't make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles 'em." ("Mockingbird," Chapter 9)

Atticus recognizes that his kids, like all kids, are different from adults, but he is determined to treat them with respect. That means he can't avoid hard truths, including the trial to which he subjects them.

Here are some telling quotes from "Go Set a Watchman":

Race Relations

"Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?" ("Watchman," Chapter 17)

This quote illustrates the difference in the way that Finch is presented in "Mockingbird" and "Watchman." It can be seen either as a turning point or a refinement of Finch's views on race relations. Finch resents the technicalities and the imposition from the outside of new standards protecting blacks—as does Jean Louise, to some degree—but his vision that people of every color deserve to be treated with dignity and respect hasn't changed. He argues that blacks aren't prepared for the power and independence being given them by forces outside the South and are doomed to fail. But the comment still casts Finch's beliefs in a different light from those expressed in "Mockingbird.".

Threats to Southern Culture

"Jean Louise, how much of what’s going on down here gets into the newspapers? ... “I mean about the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality.” ("Watchman," Chapter 3)

This quote perfectly captures Finch's take on the outside forces attempting to push Southern whites into compliance with laws attempting to ease the plight of blacks. He's referring to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that “separate but equal” segregation laws in the South were unconstitutional. It isn't that he disagrees with the concept that the court approved; he believes that Southerners should take such steps for themselves and not let the federal government dictate changes to Southern culture.

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