In the Deep South, in a little town named Maycomb, tradition for most people meant prejudice, separation, and racism. Atticus Finch chooses to fight against this “old tradition” with traditions of his own. Because of his highly ethical character, Atticus is able to honorably defend Tom Robinson and promote a “new tradition” for himself and his children. Respect, dignity, and equality form the backbone of Atticus’ belief system, a belief system containing qualities that are often overlooked in the traditional South. In the absence of outside support, Atticus fights his battle the only way he knows how — with patience, perseverance, and honesty.
The South and tradition are synonymous. Southerners are known to be proud of their traditional beliefs. To Kill A Mockingbird serves as a piece of literature that allows its readers to question and consider those southern beliefs. Maycomb represents a typical old southern town. Not many people move into Maycomb and not many people who live there journey beyond its boundaries. As a result, the opinions held by many of the citizens of Maycomb are left to grow and foster in the same families for many generations. The circumstances in Maycomb are less than ideal for generating change and more prone to sustaining traditionally accepted codes. Two codes embedded within southern social beliefs are class and race.
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Class and family history is an important part of tradition to many of the people in Maycomb. When Aunt Alexandra comes to visit, she feels it her duty to impress upon Scout the importance of her roots. Aunt Alexandra forces Atticus to explain to Scout that she is “not from run-of-the-mill people, the product of several generations’ gentle breeding”(p.133). Aunt Alexandra feels that people are born into a certain class, and should, therefore, behave accordingly. If you are born into a high class, you will always be considered high class, and if you are born into a low class, there is no use to strive for anything higher. The result is that family values are repeated in each generation with similar attitudes and character shadings. The objective is obviously to refine the classes and keep them pure. Aunt Alexandra and many other men and women in Maycomb praise the distinction of class. To them, having high blood is seen as sacred and there is no way to obtain it but by birth.
This view of the pure class in many southerner s minds led to prejudice and separation. When Scout wants to invite Walter Cunningham home to dinner, Aunt Alexandra has strong objections and comments “that they’re good folks. But they’re not our kind of folks”(p.224). She further explains that “you can scrub Walter Cunningham till he shines, you can put him in shoes and a new suit, but he’ll never be like Jem”(p.224). People in Maycomb are concerned about the mixing of classes. Mixing meant impurity and it was simply not done.
Mixing of race posed an even larger threat to the preserving of purity. Miscegenation did not have a place in southern society. Mr. Dolphus’ mixed children are pitied because “colored folks won’t have ‘em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ‘em ’cause they’re colored, so they’re just in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere” (p.161). Individuals of Maycomb deal with race in different ways, but they do not face up to the real problem. Some people ignore the problem and advocate separation. Others revert to hatred and sometimes even violence.
The ladies of Aunt Alexandra’s Missionary Society openly admit that “Down here we just say you live your way and we’ll live ours”(p.234). If there is no attempt of interaction on either part, then the town and its people feel safe and content. Others refer to Tom Robinson as a “nigger” and speak of him in such dehumanizing terms that he is thought of as a beast or a thing, just so he is not a human being deserving rights. Mr. Ewell views Tom as the “black nigger ruttin’ on Mayella”(p.173) and for Mayella he is nothing more than the evidence of her offense that she must destroy. Still, other men attempt to convey their views of race through violence. A mob of men arrive at the jailhouse with the intent to kill Tom Robinson rather than let him and his race continue to disrupt the balance of purity in the town. At the time of the trial, all these beliefs are considered accepted ways of dealing with the threat the citizens of Maycomb consider race to be. In the eyes of Maycomb, Tom is not only charged with the raping of Mayella Ewell but, also, with the raping of a strong set of Southern traditional beliefs to which most people had grown accustomed.
The small town of Maycomb sees nothing wrong with their traditional views — high class is to be revered, and any attempt to mix with low blood or a different race is unspeakable. To Kill A Mockingbird analyzes the point at which the old tradition begins to change and evolve. Up until the trial, the people of Maycomb live the way they see fit. Equality is frowned upon, segregation is accepted, and hate is tolerated. Maycomb citizens believe that Tom Robinson is not, and should not be, a part of their lives or of their community. Atticus, on the other hand, finds faults with the town s traditional views. Thinking reasonably and intelligently, he knows he does not want his children to grow up with similar views. Atticus attacks old southern tradition by using the law. Atticus lives by a traditional code in which justice is highly valued. He strongly believes that “in our courts all men are created equal”(p.205). Atticus knows that if there is one place in which the time-honored codes of southern society can be broken, it is in a court of law. He discovers, however, that tradition is not easily broken and laws are not easily changed.
Atticus embraces tradition in a manner similar to the southern town of Maycomb. He possesses all the characteristics which classify him as the perfect model of a “Southern gentleman.” He is noble, courageous, polite, and he stands up for his beliefs. He is a respected man who has equal respect for others. Even after Mrs. Dubose puts down Atticus because he “lawed for nigger and trash”(p.103), he still has the ability to refer to her as “a great lady”(p.112) and respect her for her bravery. When Mr. Ewell curses Atticus, spits on him, and even threatens to kill him, Atticus stands there to take it and then peacefully walks away. Atticus’ actions render him deserving of the qualities of dignity and nobility that classify him as the very image of a “Southern gentleman.” The strong southern traditions that Atticus was raised by are what enable him to have the courage and strength to honorably defend Tom Robinson at a time when others would rather persecute him.
Traditional southern social values clash with Atticus’ strong traditional character and the outcome is decided through the trial. Although Atticus is not given a choice in defending Tom Robinson, he does not approach his task half-heartedly. He conducts himself with pride, and, at all times, remains true to his feelings. Atticus attempts to explain to Scout that “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man”(p.104). He behaves honestly and never compromises his beliefs. Atticus admits, “I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”(p.105). Atticus uses all his skills as a lawyer to present the truth during the trial and he urges the men of the jury to look deep and find it as well. Atticus possesses a determination that never weakens, no matter what attempts are made to destroy his character or his reputation. He shows his children, Jem and Scout, what true integrity is. After the verdict is read, and Atticus is leaving the courtroom, he is rewarded with the respect that a true gentleman of his stature deserves when all the blacks in the balcony rise to their feet in silent recognition of his noble character.
Although disappointed and frustrated by the verdict, Jem and Scout both learn valuable lessons. Atticus succeeds in conveying his simple message that when a white man cheats a black man, “no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash”(p.220). After the trial, Jem and Scout don’t care what people say about their “nigger-loving” father. It does not matter because he has bestowed upon them a new tradition of thinking. Jem and Scout do not think in terms of class and race. Scout does not have to think hard to know that she would “let Tom Robinson go so quick the Missionary Society wouldn’t have time to catch its breath”(p.234) if it was up to her, and if Jem had been on the jury, “Tom would be a free man”(p.220). Atticus is pleased by his childrens’ views. Atticus has one wish entering into the trial, and that is, that Jem and Scout get through it “without catching Maycomb’s usual disease”(p.88). The “disease” Atticus does not want them to catch is the set of the traditional views that will interfere with their reasoning process. Atticus’ comment for the jury is that “There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads — they couldn’t be fair if they tried”(p.220). That “something” is tradition, and Atticus does his small part in attempting to reshape it.
After realizing that he is fighting an uphill battle, it is Atticus’ integrity that keeps him pushing forward. He sees the problems with southern traditional social codes and he realizes they must be redefined — for the sake of his children, and his children’s children. Atticus knows that one of these days someone is “going to pay the bill for it”(p.221). He realizes that traditional beliefs will not be changed overnight, and he does not expect it. His solution to his dilemma is to stick firmly to his own beliefs. Atticus Finch is a true Southern gentleman. His courage, nobility, pride, and honesty allow him to do what few men at the time could do. Atticus does not fool himself by ignoring the inevitable. He accepts Maycomb s traditions and attacks the traditional views that he does not believe in like a true gentleman.