BENGALURU: Rarely does a fictional character become so larger than life that it not only inspires thought and action but also steers a generation of Americans towards law so that they can do their bit in the fight against racism in the America of the 1960s.
Loosely based on Harper Lee’s own father, Atticus Finch in the Pulitzer-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird was a lawyer in Alabama who took on a case to defend Tom Robinson -- a black man framed for raping a white woman.
Known by all in the fictitious town of Maycomb Country for his stern but fair attitude towards everything in life, Finch takes up Robinson’s case despite knowing that the system was rigged against him -- and what is special about Finch is that this knowledge did not deter him from providing the innocent black man with the best defence he could muster.
Even when he is bringing up his two children -- Jeremy “Jem” Finch and Jean Louise “Scout” Finch -- he maintains the same philosophy. His advice to Scout: “If you can 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 inside of his skin and walk around in it” has gone down in history as one of the most memorable literary quotes.
“Do you really think so?” was Finch’s signature retort as he liked to make people question their own knowledge and probe the possibility of a newer understanding of things.
Yet he does not forget that Jem and Scout are children who should be allowed their own childish humour. It is because Finch understood well that just as he was learning how to bring up children -- sometimes having to defend his progressive parenting style to the more traditional practitioners -- his children were learning lessons of life too.
Throughout the course of the novel, Finch fights societal prejudices in a calm and dignified manner. He politely proves Bob Ewell is a liar, even when he spits on Finch’s face, and questions Mayella about her hand in Robbinson’s misery when she ‘falsely’ accused him. As Finch’s longtime friend points out, “Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets.”
Though in Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’, Finch has been robbed off most of the qualities that made him what he is -- he was older and prejudiced. But for readers like me who first picked up ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ years ago and found inspiration in Finch, that is the kind of Atticus Finch the world deserved and that is the kind of cinematic portrayal that the character inspired that made Lee gift Gregory Peck her father’s watch.
After all, in both literature and life, it is difficult to find men like Atticus, who can so easily see the world through someone else’s eyes and willingly fight their battles when nobody is.
This weekly column will feature one interesting fictional character from classics and cult novels