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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

THE STORY

PART ONE

CHAPTER 10

In this chapter you continue to learn more about the character of Atticus.

Jem and Scout have always been bothered by the fact that Atticus is much older than the fathers of their friends. What's more, Atticus doesn't do any of the things that the other fathers seem to enjoy. He never goes hunting or fishing; he even excuses himself from playing tackle football with Jem on the grounds that he is too old for such games.

Perhaps this is why Atticus doesn't believe in fighting back with fists. Maybe he is just too old to understand. Maybe he is even a little bit of a coward. Both Scout and Jem are too loyal to their father ever to voice their worries in quite this way, but the suspicion may well have occurred to you that Atticus does not believe in physical violence because he is too weak to have a chance of winning.

These suspicions may be reinforced by Atticus' wary attitude toward guns. Both Jem and Scout have received air rifles for Christmas, but Atticus makes it quite clear that he does not approve. The children are allowed to have air guns only because shooting is a universal pastime for youngsters in their part of the country, and Atticus does not want the children to be set apart from their friends in more ways than are necessary.


Atticus does make Jem and Scout promise him one thing: if they have to shoot at something, they may shoot at blue jays, because blue jays were widely regarded as pests. But no matter what, they must never kill a mockingbird. This would be a "sin." Miss Maudie later explains to the children what Atticus meant. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us," she says. They are harmless birds, innocent of any wrong, and this is why it would be unjust to shoot at them.

One day while Scout and Jem are out hunting, something happens that proves to them once and for all that their father's philosophy of nonviolence does not come from weakness. Jem spots a mad dog heading for the street where the Finches live. The dog's odd behavior shows that it has rabies, a disease that is fatal, not just to the animal but to a person bitten by it. Calpurnia orders the children indoors and alerts the neighborhood. Soon the sheriff, Heck Tate, arrives with Atticus. But when the moment comes to shoot the dog, the sheriff hands his rifle over to Atticus, with the comment that Atticus is the only marksman who could be sure to put the animal out of its misery safely with a single shot. This is the first hint the children have ever had that their father was once known as "One-Shot Finch," the best hunter in Maycomb County.

Miss Maudie later tells Jem and Scout that Atticus gave up hunting long ago because he felt that his natural talent for shooting gave him an "unfair advantage over most living things." Jem is delighted. "Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!" Jem shouts, meaning that they are both right to avoid fighting and violence.

NOTE:

What do you think of this definition of a "gentleman?" In one sense it is easy to see why Atticus' behavior is admirable. He is a gentleman because he does not find it necessary to brag and show off his talents. He doesn't feel that he constantly has to prove that he is a "real man." On the other hand, you may find that there are moments in the course of the story when Atticus seems to carry his philosophy of gentlemanly restraint too far. You seldom see Atticus express strong emotions about anything, even in the privacy of his home. You learn only later that the Tom Robinson case was assigned to him by the judge. Would he have volunteered to take the case on his own? You can't be sure. The concept of the "gentleman" is the opposite of the modern idea that it is healthy to express your feelings freely and use your talents to the utmost in order to express your inner self. You can be sure that Atticus would be horrified by this worship of self-expression- and so, for that matter, would the author Harper Lee. As you read on you will have to decide for yourself whether you agree with Atticus' values, or whether you sometimes find them too severe.  

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