Mockingbird Monday: Lee’s Novel Reminds us that Courage is a choice

On Memorial Daywe take moments to celebratethose people who have demonstrated tremendous acts of self-sacrifice and courage. In honorof the national holiday I thought it would be good to focus on “The Parable of AtticusFinch” and meditate onthe realities ofhow courage really happens:

At this point in the novel, with the Tom Robinson trial on the horizon and the Finch family facing the fury of the town, it is reassuring to know that Atticus can handle a gun. In my first read of the novel, I remember thinking that this was a clear sign that Atticus had the ability to take care of himself; after all, heroes have the power to do that type of thing. It was a comforting thought to a young reader concerned for the safety of the Finch family. Scout had been struck with terror about the approaching mad dog, and certainly through her eyes, it took courage for Atticus to walk into the middle of the street wielding a gun and face the terror down.

Shortly after this event, Jem and Scout encounter someone who appears almost as terrible as a mad dog: awful old Mrs. Dubose, whom the neighborhood children are certain is the meanest woman in the world. Scout explains that Jem would not go near her house without Atticus close by. The ailing and elderly Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose curses at them and hassles them each day as they walk by her house. They fear her, and that dread is heightened by the neighborhood legend that she keeps an old Civil War pistol hidden beneath her shawl while lording over the street corner from her front porch. Her constant goading finally breaks Jem; he tears up the flowers in her front yard. As discipline, Atticus makes Jem go read to Mrs. Dubose each evening after school. It is not until after Mrs. Dubose dies that the children learn the extent of her illness; she’d been working her way through a terrible addiction to morphine prescribed for a painful ailment. Atticus uses this honest moment to help Scout and Jem understand the true qualities of courage. With the events of the mad dog fresh in their minds, and a sincere distaste for the old woman who had tormented them, Atticus explains to his children his deep respect for Mrs. Dubose. He tells them that true courage isn’t a man holding a gun, confident of victory—instead, it’s persevering even when facing an enemy that you know is destined to defeat you. He goes on to say that even if Jem hadn’t gotten into trouble with Mrs. Dubose, he had planned on making him read to her anyway. This scene, more than any other, cuts to the essence of courage and demonstrates that it is not found in the power of a gun or in the confirmation of victory. No, courage is a decision, and it is a spiritual quality that goes far beyond our trendy and generous use of the term. Atticus shows the children that courage has little to do with power, and everything to do with making the decision to do what is right . . . win or lose.

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