“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” – Atticus Finch
One of my favorite books of all time is To Kill A Mockingbird.
Harper Lee’s classic is still taught in schools today, and resembles a very hard look at how we used to be as Americans concerning race. So many threads permeate this book, including perceptions, perspectives and how to listen to them, the socioeconomic toll of racism, the dangers of not thinking critically, and many others.
For this particular blog post, I’m going to be looking at the most popular character of this book and what he stands for. I am going to examine the masculinity crux of what Atticus Finch represents in terms of what makes a man masculine. Does might make right? Does mindset determine what makes a man a man? I will be using historical references, especially Rome (because it’s me) and discussing why “alpha and beta are contextual” (as Rollo has stated) and a one size fits all attempt to box in masculinity will only leave men with more questions.
There is a steady thread in this book that truly defines Atticus as masculine, even if he comes off in the book as a “Beta”, as many men have stated he does.
Atticus is a lightning rod for debate and has been co-opted by several movements seeing themselves as the group he was fighting for in the book. But I believe not only has he been unfairly ridiculed and chastised, he has also been unfairly propped up for being a symbol of other movements that he would not agree with.
For the time, he was a new type of man that had never really been seen before, or as Rome dubbed any man who was the first in his household to be in the Senate, novus homo, or “new man”. A man who wasn’t about brute force but about brute will. Yet a man that more than likely couldn’t win a fight, too weak to punch back, and too timid to step forward.
He is many times seen as “weak”. He doesn’t fight back when confronted with violence. His supposed weakness in allowing his kids to be attacked in a situation where he was powerless. His dealings with the gang trying to lynch Tom Robinson, etc.
He is called into account on several occasion and he doesn’t respond the way a “typical” man would.
Also, remember that Atticus’s behavior is seen through the eyes of Scout, so we have to take into account these things are filtering in through her perspective.
So what’s the rub here? Is Atticus Finch, one of the central characters in this book, a weak man? Or can we see that his actions indicate a man of integrity, honesty, and truth?
I won’t try to answer any of these questions. This essay is being written to simply have the discussion about what makes a man masculine, why might may make right or not, and why, while violence is the ultimate yes or no answer, it’s not so black and white and as we have seen throughout history, non-violence has moved mountains that the strongest man couldn’t move.
As with everything, there is nuance that needs to be addressed here, and my job is to facilitate discussion over a man who has stood for so much, yet been chastised for it as well. Yes, I tend to agree that he is very masculine, in fact more masculine than the biggest fighter or strongest warrior, simply because his will is iron, and his convictions are his weapons.
It also raises questions about other male characters in the story, like Boo Radley, and what they would be considered in terms of masculinity. I love exploring this subject and anything I can do to talk about one of my favorite books is always a welcomed task.
Atticus is much maligned for being a weak individual. He doesn’t fight, doesn’t brag, doesn’t get upset, very rarely raises his voice, and generally lets men stronger than him do the work. With Miss Maudie’s house, when it catches fire, he doesn’t help very much, with Tim Johnson where he consistently swears off wanting his kids to see him use a rifle, to being powerless when Bob Ewell attacks his kids. His kids see his discipline as passive, and he reads instead of being active.
He doesn’t retaliate when he’s spit on by Ewell. He doesn’t get upset with his children when they disobey him. He’s much too even keeled to have an effect on a situation, and he consistently blames his age or his weakness on things that he can’t do.
Especially in the first few chapters, he is what many in the sphere is the quintessential “beta”, a man who is weak physically, avoids certain situations, and doesn’t take control. From the perspective of Scout, Atticus could very well be seen this way, and what’s great about the book is that as it goes on, Scout’s perception becomes different as Atticus reveals more of who he is.
In the book, Atticus Finch is a lawyer, father, and state representative in the Alabama congress. He is an older man, having had his kids later in life and having lost his wife, Atticus, along with his house keeper Calpurnia, raise Jem and Scout (and sometimes Dil).
The first questions arise with every interaction Scout has with Atticus. Is he a masculine man?
Atticus, in many ways, is very stoic. He is a part manifestation of what Marcus Aurelius would have been, and we’ll be talking about Marcus later as well. He doesn’t raise his voice to his kids, in fact, his parenting style is seen as disapproved by the other townspeople, as well as his sister, Alexandra. He raises his kids in a very masculine way, simply because he is very straight forward, direct, but not necessarily too strict. He understands his masculine fatherhood has an effect on Scout and he brings in Alexandra towards the end of the book to help raise Scout to be a “proper girl.” Atticus believes in education, he is well read as are his children (sometimes socially to their own detriment), and his ways are not questioned to his face, even when his sister tries to gain some control over the house, he quietly places his boundaries.
If you have read this classic, you’ll know that several times in the book, Atticus tends to downplay his talents, his role to his kids. Scout and Jem many times ask what the hell their father does, whether anything he does means he’s a man, let alone a strong man, and for several chapters, question if what he does as an attorney, as a state representative (as they hadn’t seen anything else), and as the story unfolds, they slowly discover the type of man Atticus is. His masculinity is put into question early and often by Scout and Jem as they discuss what he does. The scene with Atticus and Tim Johnson (the rabid dog) gives his kids a glimpse of what kind of a man he is, and witnessing Atticus (who is known as the best shot in the county) changes Jem dramatically. He begins to truly respect his father and sees exactly what he does. Atticus’s actions through the rest of the book only galvanize Jem’s respect for him.
Through their interactions with him, they discover their father is a man of character, a man of honor, and a man of immense courage. The interactions with the gang trying to lynch Tom Robinson, and the bravery that Atticus exudes when faced with potential violence, even potentially sacrificing himself to protect Tom. The example I can think of is Ghandi, who’s use of non-violence changed India and granted them independence from Britain. Britain, just like the gang, could have used violence to get what they wanted. However, the cost of that violence would have cost them more than they could have imagined. Ghandi’s death at the hands of the British, just like if Atticus had been killed or beaten by the mob, would have done greater damage to the situation. Many of these men were Atticus’s friends and acquaintances, he knew these men. He knew their families, and with his kids by his side, he faced down the mob and won.
It was the same when confronted with Bob Ewell. Atticus was confronted by Bob Ewell because he had the temerity to defend Tom against a dishonest attack. As we see many times in the novel, Bob Ewell is the anti to Atticus’s pro.
Atticus Finch isn’t going to overpower anyone with violence. He’s powerless in the one part of the story where lethal violence is attempted. Boo Radley, on the other hand, was the one who used violence to stop Bob Ewell and help save Atticus’s kids. But he is a recluse, and we only ever meet him once, while he stays in the background until he is needed to save the day.
And let’s not forget the crux of Atticus in the story, that of standing up to racial bigotry. That alone qualifies him as masculine. He stood, alone many times, for something he believed in, through threats of violence and bullying, to try to defend Tom Robinson.
Ultimately, a man’s masculinity is determined by what he stands for, how he stands for it, and how he carries himself in pursuit of it. And even in the face of death, a man standing for something he believes in ultimately is the purest form of masculine power.
I love to do historical comparisons of fictional characters because it makes me very happy to try and draw lines on strengths and weaknesses that these two groups of people have. And what better way to compare than with Rome.
Atticus reminds me a ton of two famous Roman Emperors, Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. He really falls in line with Augustus, who we have historical records on as being very weak and sickly. Augustus however, while lacking in physical strength, had incredible charisma, as well as strategic and political powers that were well above the average. He maneuvered his way through tough Roman politics and faced down enemies with ruthless efficiency. But, he could not have done what he did had it not be for Marcus Agrippa. He provided the brawn to Augustus’s brains. Augustus would certainly not have had the long reign he had were it not for the army he controlled. But also, remember, in order to control the armies, you have to earn their respect. And Augustus did this in spades, through his portrayal as the “princeps” or “first citizen”. His charisma made him larger than life. Without that, Augustus would never have graduated from Octavian.
Marcus Aurelius is another comparison, simply because “the philosopher emperor” is such a huge draw for men studying stoicism and the effects he has one it. Truly, Atticus is just trying to live his life, do his job, and be magnanimous in his dealings. Marcus could fight sure, but his strength was in his command, as well as his philosophy. He commanded armies because of his calm, steady, and even handed leadership.
What’s funny about history, is that many of the most powerful men in it’s annals haven’t been able to be physically gifted or had the ability to fight well. Look across the spectrum and you’ll see even the most powerful men like Genghis Khan, Mao, and Napoleon were not your typical warriors, had to make deals with other tribes /leaders / countries, and couldn’t overpower enemies unless they had cunning, skill, and ruthlessness.
None of the men in “To Kill A Mockingbird” are overwhelmingly what would be called “masculine”. I think Lee goes out of her way to make that very apparent. She draws her masculine through the eyes of Scout, and Scout’s prism filters even very tough, masculine men with a hint of subtlety, bringing out their feminine sides.
At the beginning of the story, the weak are supposed to be Atticus and Boo, but in the end, it’s those two that make the story through their actions. Atticus with his iron will, and Boo with his timing and humility. It’s not enough to just be strong to be masculine. And I think Lee makes this very apparent. The crescendo of how these two men go from perceived weak to perceived strong with respect is always a funny arc that Lee paints.
In conclusion, would Atticus be compared to our most masculine men these days? Would he be a Jordan Peterson, Scott Adams, or would he be a Donald Trump, a Joe Biden, a Vladimir Putin, etc?
I leave that for you to ponder and discuss.
In my mind, Atticus makes up for his physical weakness by his almost indomitable will. He stands for what he stands for, because he believes it to be right, and men have shaped worlds with that attitude. Yes, violence is the ultimate answer, but charismatic, directed violence, as well as a unrestrained strength in the face of it, is also an answer, and more often than not, especially in the historical references, men who have the capability for violence are merely pawns in the chess game of men who understand the importance of violence as an answer, but also the importance of a strong will.
Without the will, violence is just violence. With the will, violence and even non-violence become much more effective tools.
Violence can only answer true or false questions in a world full of multiple choice, and as Atticus showed us, he can be threatened with absolute violence and still come out ahead in the end.