Saturday, April 7, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird: Real courage is not a man with a gun in his hand

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“…Real courage is not a man with a gun in his hand…”1 This single statement, made by Atticus Finch mid-way through To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, summarises the core message of the book. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is basically about a court case of a Negro in racist times, seen through the eyes of a child. However, the story strikes a cord with so many people not because of it’s subject matter, serious as it is, but of the ideals of a central Atticus Finch. Like an American version of Confucius, peppered throughout the book is snippets of philosophy, and the aforementioned one about courage I believe is one of the key ideas the author wished us to remember.


So what is courage, exactly? It is more than a person’s weapons or means of defence. A man with a gun is no more courageous than a man with a stick, or in the case of the novel, a good argument. Anyone can point a weapon and pull the trigger, but it takes true guts to stand up in front of a group of people and do or say something that conflicts with the norm, something most certainly would not agree with.


“…The courts appointed Atticus to defend him. Atticus aimed to defend him. That’s what they didn’t like about it. It was confusing…” Here is a clear example of how Atticus defied attitudes of the time. Through the narrative we can gather that in the past cases with negroes would be delegated to trainees needing practice. You weren’t supposed to care what happened to your client if he was black. You weren’t supposed to even try to win the case. To do otherwise was to be condemned to instant social isolation, and even resentment from the narrow-minded community.


If all these things were piled against him, why did Atticus do what he did? What inspired him to be courageous? Once again, the answer lies with his personal beliefs.


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“…Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience…” As shown here, what was right and just was more important to Atticus than what others thought. Was it almost as though guilt drove him? That he simply could not live with himself if he had just gone along with what people expected of him?


For the children, especially early in the book, courage has a different meaning. Courage is to touch the feared Radley house, face up to unfair teachers, to pass Ms Dubose’s house without responding to her cutting remarks. Yet in a sense, although these problems are seemingly insignificant it is very real to them, and they handle it the best they can. It takes more guts for Scout to stop fighting the other children at school to succumb to her rage. Anyone can hurl an insult at another, but not all can simply walk away, head held up high.


What is real courage, if not a man with a gun in his hand? From what is displayed from the text, real courage is standing up for what you believe in, being unswayed from your view even if it’s the easy thing to do. Courage is not a physical thing but rather mental, an unshakeable part of one’s psyche. In the court case, the outcome may have not changed had Atticus not acted courageously, but sometimes the effort, doing your best is just as important.


Real courage is not, and never has been, a man with a gun in his hand. Real courage is a state of mind, and in such war-torn times it is easy to forget. It is easy to start a conflict, but to prevent one from happening? Well, that takes real courage.


To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee


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