First of all, if you learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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.
Here, Atticus articulates the central lesson he wants to convey to Scout, which is that empathy is the key to understanding others. Atticus presents lessons in empathy several times in relation to Scout’s schoolmates, her teacher, the mob outside the courthouse, and the jury. By the end of the novel, Scout has begun using empathy to understand others. Though Scout still has a lot to learn about the difficulties of society, her final interactions with Boo Radley demonstrate that she has understood Atticus’s “simple trick” and learned to apply it.
Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat.
Atticus knows that by agreeing to defend Tom Robinson he has put himself and his family in line for some unpleasant experiences. Atticus is particularly interested in protecting his children from the ugliness around the trial, and here, he tries to convince Scout to ignore whatever abuse comes her way. Scout tries mightily to obey her father’s advice throughout the novel. Scout’s struggle to behave the way she knows her father wants her to versus her urge to protect her family form one of the conflicts of the novel.
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.
Here Atticus is talking to Jem about Mrs. Dubose’s commitment to beating her morphine addiction before death, even though she knows she is going to die regardless. Elsewhere in the novel Atticus uses the same language to describe how he faces Tom Robinson’s trial knowing from the beginning that he cannot win, and that the jury will find Tom guilty no matter what. Atticus directs this lesson to Jem because Jem is the one who is most embittered and defeated by Tom’s guilty verdict.
“How could they do it, how could they?”
Here, Jem asks Atticus how the jury could find Tom Robinson guilty. Atticus’s reply suggests that the racism inherent in the guilty verdict is part of the past, present, and future of the community. Atticus also suggests that only people that the members of the jury won’t feel any remorse about their actions, as children like Jem, who weeps for Tom’s fate, are the only people innocent and unprejudiced enough to recognize the injustice of the verdict. Though this line comes in a quiet scene between father and son, it is one of the most scathing indictments of Maycomb’s culture that Atticus offers.
Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take.
In this quote, Atticus says he would rather Bob Ewell focus his rage on Atticus than on one of Bob’s children. He is trying to get Jem to consider the situation from Bob’s point of view, and understand the humiliation and rage Bob must feel as a result of the trial. While Atticus is empathetic to Bob’s experience, he underestimates the depth of Bob’s rage, which will affect his children more than it affects Atticus directly.
Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn’t be fair if they tried.
Here, Atticus explains mob mentality, arguing that well-intentioned individuals can lose their basic humanity when they act together. Examples of this behavior include the group that appears outside Tom Robinson’s cell at night, and the jury that finds him guilty. Atticus also suggests that the presence of reasonable people can serve as a cure to unreasonable behavior. This principle seems to guide Atticus’s commitment to doing right even when there is no hope of success.
That was the one thing that made me think, well, this may be the shadow of a beginning. That jury took a few hours. An inevitable verdict, maybe, but usually it takes ‘em just a few minutes.
Here, Atticus is talking to Jem about how long the jury deliberated before returning with a verdict. Atticus sees a glimmer of hope in the fact that the jury did not immediately find Tom guilty, as they usually would in such a case. The fact that they debated the case for a few hours suggests at least one member of the jury might have believed Tom was innocent. Atticus recognizes that the time it took for the jury to reach a decision is a small victory, perhaps too small to even be considered a victory, but that it is still a kind of progress, and that it should be valued.
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