If you get a hundred law students into a room (a ghastly thought, but bear with me) and ask them who they would say was the ideal lawyer, the odds are that the majority would choose Atticus Finch
. The beatification of this fictional Southern attorney is a reflection of two things: the first is that To Kill a Mockingbird
has been on every school reading list for forty years now. The second is that, lets face it, there isn’t exactly a whole heap of competition. Milly from This Life
? The beatification of Finch and of Harper Lee’s book in general is so well entrenched that a bit of a backlash is hardly surprising.
In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the real nature of the relationship between Tom and Huck, or why Gatsby gazed at that green light at the end of the dock across the harbor. There is no ambiguity in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad. As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as "an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious."
Yes and no. It is, after all, a children’s book and it shouldn’t be too surprising that it engenders a situation where one side appears to be unambiguously right and the other unambiguously wrong. But looking at the trial with an adult eye, something else is striking. Finch is dealt a pretty poor hand – the racial prejudice of the jury is almost overpowering. Certainly it is not enough to ‘win’ the argument on the facts. But race prejudice is not the only tool to deploy in the deep South. Lets look how he guides Robinson through the cross-examination.
“She reached up an’ kissed me ’side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”
“What did he say?”
. . . Tom Robinson shut his eyes tight. “He says you goddam whore, I’ll kill ya.”
If you think about it, it’s a little funny that Atticus Finch is the hero of so many liberals. Because the way he conducts the defence of Tom Robinson in a rape trial is to attack the credibility of the victim, to assert that she asked for it, and to insinuate that she was guilty of incest with her father. What he does, then, is to look for a different prejudice to counteract the race prejudice. And he finds it in class prejudice. Finch’s defence is that Robinson may be black, but his accuser is no-good gutter-trash, and a slut into the bargain. Which makes the whole book suddenly seem less saccharine.