Atticus Finch

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Atticus Finch is a fictional character in author Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird. A preliminary version of the character also appears in the novel Go Set a Watchman, written in the mid 1950s but not published until 2015. Atticus is a lawyer and resident of the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama, and the father of Jeremy "Jem" Finch and Jean Louise "Scout" Finch. Lee based the character on her own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, an Alabama lawyer, who, like Atticus, represented black defendants in a highly publicized criminal trial.[1] Book Magazine‍ '​s list of The 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900 names Finch as the seventh best fictional character of 20th-century literature.[2][3] In 2003, the American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch, as portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation, as the greatest hero of all American cinema.[4]

Impact on the legal profession[edit]

Claudia Durst Johnson has commented about critiques of the novel, saying, "A greater volume of critical readings has been amassed by two legal scholars in law journals than by all the literary scholars in literary journals".[5] Alice Petry remarked, "Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person".[6] Examples of Atticus Finch's impact on the legal profession are plentiful. Richard Matsch, the federal judge who presided over the Timothy McVeigh trial, counts Atticus as a major judicial influence.[7] One law professor at the University of Notre Dame stated that the most influential textbook from which he taught was To Kill a Mockingbird, and an article in the Michigan Law Review asserts, "No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession", before questioning whether "Atticus Finch is a paragon of honor or an especially slick hired gun."[8]

In 1992 Monroe Freedman, a professor of law and noted legal ethicist, published two articles in the national legal newspaper Legal Times calling for the legal profession to set aside Atticus Finch as a role model.[9] Freedman argued that Atticus still worked within a system of institutionalized racism and sexism and should not be revered. Freedman's article sparked a flurry of responses from attorneys who entered the profession holding Atticus Finch as a hero and the reason for which they became lawyers.[10] Freedman argued that Atticus Finch is dishonest, unethical, sexist, and inherently racist, and that he did nothing to challenge the racist status quo in Maycomb.[11] Freedman's article sparked furious controversy, with one legal scholar opining, "What Monroe really wants is for Atticus to be working on the front lines for the NAACP in the 1930s, and, if he's not, he's disqualified from being any kind of hero; Monroe has this vision of lawyer as prophet. Atticus has a vision of lawyer not only as prophet but as parish priest".[9] In 1997 the Alabama State Bar erected a monument dedicated to Atticus in Monroeville marking his existence as the "first commemorative milestone in the state's judicial history".[12]

Film adaptation[edit]

In the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, the actor Gregory Peck portrayed Finch. Lee became a good friend of Peck as a result of his depiction of Finch, and she even gave Peck her father’s watch.[13] For his performance in the film, Peck received the Academy Award for Best Actor. Peck, a civil-rights activist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom who favored the role of Finch over all his other roles, said about his performance:

I put everything I had into it – all my feelings and everything I'd learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. And my feelings about racial justice and inequality and opportunity.

Gregory Peck[14]

Lee continued to praise Peck's portrayal of Finch in the years following the film's release:

In that film, the man and the part met.

Harper Lee[15]

The line "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it", spoken by Finch in both the novel and film, was one of 400 film quotes nominated by the AFI for its 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes list, but it was not included in the final list.[16]

In 2003 Finch, as depicted in the film, was voted by the American Film Institute to be the greatest hero in American film.[4] Finch was chosen over other film protagonists, including Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, and Mohandas K. Gandhi (as depicted in the film Gandhi). In 2008 Finch was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 100 Greatest Movie Characters.[17] Premiere magazine also ranked Finch as number 13 on its list of The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.[18] On its list of the 100 Greatest Fictional Characters, ranked Finch at number 32.[19] Entertainment Weekly placed Finch on its list of The 20 All Time Coolest Heroes in Pop Culture.[20]

Entertainment Weekly stated, "[Finch] transforms quiet decency, legal acumen, and great parenting into the most heroic qualities a man can have". It also stated that the character Jake Brigance from the film A Time to Kill is a "copycat descendant" of Atticus Finch.[20]

Social references[edit]

Atticus Finch's willingness to support social outcasts and victims of prejudice is the eponymous inspiration for the name of the Atticus Circle, which is an organization composed of "straight allies" (that is, heterosexual people supportive of the LGBT-rights movement).[21]

Go Set a Watchman[edit]

In July 2015, days before Lee's highly anticipated second novel Go Set a Watchman, was officially published, the first chapter was released on The Guardian for public viewing. On that day, a New York Times review of the book (which is set about twenty years after the time period depicted in Mockingbird but is not a chronological sequel)[22] revealed that Atticus, depicted in this version as being in his early seventies, is portrayed as a far less progressive character. He makes comments that favor segregation and has attended a Citizens’ Council meeting. This has proved controversial to many readers, unaware perhaps that although To Kill a Mockingbird was published first, Watchman is the first draft of the text that later became Mockingbird and the characterizations and key plot details between the two books are not only different but sometimes contradictory.[23]

In terms of plot, Tom Robinson is acquitted in Watchman while in Mockingbird his unjust conviction as the result of prejudice was a central part of not only the story but why Atticus is seen culturally as such a righteous and progressive character. His defense is based on not just Robinson's innocence but on his fundamental equality. His closing argument is a more polished version of the progressive argument the adult Jean Louise makes in Watchman and there are other instances where both versions contain the same descriptions word for word.[24] This kind of character development, where motivations and ideals between characters, for reasons of plot, are changed is not unusual in the process of creative writing. Apart from the more progressive depiction of Atticus, the depiction of the town itself, especially the African American characters, is also dramatically altered between the two drafts.[25] Real-life comparisons with Lee's father, Amasa Coleman Lee, have also been made in the two differing versions of Atticus in that originally Lee was in favor of segregation but became more liberal later in life, later changing his views to those of Integration. [26] Tay Hohoff, Lee's editor, has also been argued to have played a major part in the character development of the novel and particularly Atticus' liberal transformation. Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times notes in his article The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’[27] that Ms. Hohoff, at the same time as she was guiding Ms. Lee through the Mockingbird re-write, was working on her own biography of the early-20th-century New York activist and humanist John Lovejoy Elliot. He notes that the book, A Ministry to Man, was published in 1959, a year before Mockingbird. [27]


  1. ^ Boston, Talmage (June 2010). "Who was Atticus Finch?" (PDF). Texas Bar Journal 73 (6): 484–485. Retrieved 2013-02-05. 
  2. ^ "Book Magazine's The 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900". Retrieved 2010-05-21. 
  3. ^ Book Magazine, March/April 2002 (March 2002). "100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900". Talk of the Nation. NPR. Retrieved November 17, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-05-21. 
  5. ^ Johnson, Boundaries p.25-27
  6. ^ Petry, p. xxiii
  7. ^ Petry, p. xxiv
  8. ^ Lubet, Steven. "Reconstructing Atticus Finch." Michigan Law Review 97, no. 6 (May 1999): 1339–62.
  9. ^ a b Margolick, David (February 28, 1992). "At the Bar; To Attack A Lawyer In 'To Kill a Mockingbird': An Iconoclast Takes Aim At A Hero". The New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2015. 
  10. ^ Monroe H. Freedman, ""Atticus Finch, Esq., R.I.P.,"" 14 LEGAL TIMES 20 (1992); Monroe H. Freedman, ""Finch: The Lawyer Mythologized,"" 14 LEGAL TIMES 25 (1992) and Monroe Freedman, Atticus Finch – Right and Wrong, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 473 (1994).
  11. ^ Metress, Christopher. "The Rise and Fall of Atticus Finch." The Chattahoochee Review; 24 (1): September, 2003
  12. ^ "'Mockingbird' Hero Honored in Monroeville." Birmingham News (Alabama): May 3, 1997; Pg. 7A.
  13. ^ Freedland, Michael (July 13, 2015). "I’m the only journalist alive to have interviewed Harper Lee – and it’s all thanks to Gregory Peck". The Guardian. Retrieved July 21, 2015. [Lee] wanted to give Peck a present to physically demonstrate how much she appreciated his work. “My Daddy,” she told me, “had a pocket watch that he wore at all times in court. I gave Greg the watch, and showed him how Daddy used to use it.” 
  14. ^ Cironneau, Lionel (June 12, 2003). "Oscar-winner Gregory Peck dies at age 87". USA Today. Retrieved July 21, 2015. 
  15. ^ Daniel Eagan. America's film legacy: the authoritative guide to the landmark movies in the National Film Registry. National Film Preservation Board (U.S.)
  16. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes Official Ballot" (PDF). Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  17. ^ "Empire's The 100 Greatest Movie Characters". Empire Magazine. Retrieved 2010-05-21. 
  18. ^ "Premiere's The 100 Greatest Movie Characters". Retrieved 2010-05-21. 
  19. ^ "The 100 Greatest Fictional Characters". Archived from the original on June 20, 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-21. 
  20. ^ a b "Entertainment Weekly's 20 All Time Coolest Heroes in Pop Culture". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2010-05-21. 
  21. ^ "About Atticus Circle". 2009. Retrieved November 17, 2011. 
  22. ^
  23. ^ Sacks, Sam (July 10, 2015). "Book Review: In Harper Lee’s 'Go Set a Watchman' Atticus Finch Defends Jim Crow". The Wall Street Journal. 
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Stevens, Laura (July 13, 2015). "Memories of the Man Who Inspired Atticus Finch". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 21, 2015. 
  27. ^ a b Mahler, Jonathan (July 12, 2015). "The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’". The New York Times. Retrieved July 18, 2015. 


  • Johnson, Claudia. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. Twayne Publishers: 1994. ISBN 0-8057-8068-8
  • Johnson, Claudia. Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. Greenwood Press: 1994. ISBN 0-313-29193-4
  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. HarperCollins: 1960 (Perennial Classics edition: 2002). ISBN 0-06-093546-4
  • Mancini, Candice, ed. (2008). Racism in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird , The Gale Group. ISBN 978-0-7377-3904-6
  • Petry, Alice. "Introduction" in On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections. University of Tennessee Press: 1994. ISBN 1-57233-578-5
  • Shields, Charles. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Henry Holt and Co.: 2006. ISBN 0-8050-7919-X
  • Michiko Kakutain. "Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side" 2015.