I recently had the chance to re-read <To Kill a Mockingbird> by Harper Lee with a small intercollegiate book club that I lead with several friends. As is well known, Harper Lee’s novel is an American classic published in 1960. The central storyline follows a court case in which African- American Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman. The main character Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, is a principled lawyer who strives to prove Robinson’s innocence against the deeply entrenched prejudices and discrimination widespread in the Deep South at that time. The book is loosely based on Lee’s personal experiences and observations growing up in Alabama in the 1930s. It became an instant classic, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was made into an Academy-award winning movie one year later. To date, the book was sold more than 40 million copies and remains beloved worldwide, even after some 50 years from when it was first published.
There are many winsome characters in this novel that make it so memorable and touching. As a mother of two young girls, I was especially drawn to Scout, from whose perspective the story is written. She is quite unconventional, refusing to conform to the stereotype of how girls from proper landowner families at that time should grow up. Self-taught and intensely curious, Scouts loves to up with a good book. Although not without her own faults and shortcomings, she knows how to apologize genuinely from her heart when she comes to realize her mistakes. She also is fiercely loyal to the people around her, plucky enough to stand between her father and an angry mob of white townspeople who, in dead of night, threaten violence against Atticus for his unpopular defense of a black person.
Calpurina is my other favorite character. To the Finch children who lost their mother early on, she is much more than a maid or caretaker; Calpurnia is in fact a surrogate mother. She deeply cares for the children, teaches them many valuable things, and is unafraid of disciplining them. To the point of Scout describing her has having an unsentimental “tyrannical presence”, she has full authority when dealing with the children, highly atypical given the times and her race. As one of Maycomb’s few literate African Americans, it is implied that Calpurnia’s wisdom and respectable character are rooted in her self-education and her Christian beliefs. When Walter Cunningham, one of Scout’s classmate and from less fortunate circumstances, joins lunch with the Finches, Scout loudly and unwittingly embarrasses her friend. Immediately, Calpurnia yanks her from the dining table and privately reprimands: “Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house you company, and don’t let me catch you remarkin’ on their way like you were so high and mighty! Yo’ folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it doesn’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ’em.”
Perhaps the most inspiring and enduring character is Atticus Finch. A crowning role model for many generations of aspiring lawyers, he embodies the finest kind of intellectual that the world sorely needs. At much personal cost as a white man from an established family in Maycomb, he quietly and laboriously defends his innocent client. He brings to bear all his knowledge and craft, and makes his case powerfully, all the while his children are being mocked at school and he is physically menaced. Described as a person somewhat advanced in age and always spending time on his armchair reading, his children unexpectedly learn that Atticus was “the deadest shot in Maycomb County” in his youth; the reason that he gave it up was because he didn’t what to have an “unfair advantage” over other living things. What was the source of his courage integrity? It seems that all the hours Atticus spent thinking, reading, studying and contemplating enabled him to see beyond immediate and popular opinion in order to choose rightly. Although he ends up losing the trial itself and tragedy befalls Tom and his family, Atticus nonetheless delivers a blow against the larger battle against racial discrimination,
Spending my Saturday afternoons revisiting <To Kill a Mockingbird> and the character Atticus Finch in particular, made me think a lot. As a person who spends most of my time reading, writing and thinking, is my “learning” and “education” amounting to something meaningful? What lessons and examples am I imparting to others, including my own children and students? At the same time, the values that Atticus stood for, namely how every person deserves full respect regardless of one’s background, feels strangely relevant here at Ewha. If missionary Mary Scranton didn’t have the heart to educate the girls in Korea, this premier female university of today would never have come to existence. Now in 2021 we are quite on the other side; by any measure we are living with many privileges that previous generations would have envied. As we have reached this point, we occasionally need to pause and think about bigger questions, and seek what’s beyond our everyday life. In doing so, we may – hopefully! – step a bit closer to Atticus Finch of today.