To Kill a Mockingbird: Essay on Commitment
Task: Choose a play in which a character shows commitment to principles, ideals and individuals despite difficulties he encounters.
Show what difficulties the character encounters and explain why he remains committed.
A play in which a character shows commitment is the play of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, based on the novel by Harper Lee and dramatised by Christopher Sergel. The play, set in the American Deep South of the 1930, is about a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who encounters difficulties in the form of prejudice and hatred when he decides to defend a black man called Tom Robinson, accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. This essay will show how Atticus remains committed to his principles, ideals and individuals in the play by exploring setting, characterisation and key incidents.
The difficulties the main character encounters are rooted in the setting of the play. The action takes place in a village called Maycomb, a “tired old town” dominated by poverty, in Alabama in 1935. Racism was entrenched in the Deep South at the time and is highlighted in the frequent use of the highly offensive term “nigger” by the townspeople. Atticus is aware that his defence of a black man will create conflict for him and his family and reminds his children “We will be fighting our friends”, preparing them for a potential backlash.
Atticus’ is a character who is committed to the principles of tolerance and empathy. He values empathy highly. When his children harass their recluse neighbour Boo, Atticus does not punish them but reminds them to show more empathy: “You see, you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”, showing that he acts according to his principles. He is not frightened to stand up for his beliefs and, possibly surprisingly, is very tolerant in a prejudiced and bigoted society. He points out that “One thing doesn’t abide by majority rule – a person’s conscience.” He is very courageous in pursuing this principle and is even willing to risk his own safety - in the case of Tom Robinson he defends him from a lynch mob. Mr Cunningham, one of the villagers, warns him: “You know what we want. Stop aside from the door, Mr Finch.” It is impressive to see how Atticus, sitting outside the jail with a chair and a light, reading a book, remains calm, non-confrontational and defensive to defuse this situation full of difficulties. Atticus is a character that acts as an example to the audience as he lives by his commendable beliefs.
Atticus’ decision to defend Tom shows he is committed to the accused despite encountering hostility. This decision is based on his belief in the fundamental strength of the American justice system. He declares “in our courts – all men are created equal” but is at the same time aware of the limitations of that principle due to the potentially racist views of the jury. He skilfully defends Tom and openly acknowledges Mayella Ewell’s motive for lying as she has broken a taboo: “She has committed no crime, but she broke a rigid code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded out from our midst as unfit to live with.” He has some sympathy for Mayella’s lie but also reminds her that it has put Tom’s freedom, even his life, at risk. During Atticus’ defence, he exposes Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father, as a brutal and controlling liar and drunk. Atticus strength of character is revealed once more when, despite being spat on by Bob, he stays calm and remarks dryly: “I wish Bob Ewell wouldn’t chew tobacco.” The trial creates enormous pressure on Atticus because of emotive issues involved but he remains principled and composed and delivers an impressive defence. Despite the shocking “guilty” verdict, the audience sense that a little victory has been achieved by Atticus as Bob Ewell’s true nature has been highlighted.
Later on in the play Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout, an event – a key incident and the climax of the play - that Atticus did not foresee because he always tries to see the best in people. He falsely believes that Jem has killed Bob and wants his son to face the consequences, stating that he “won’t hush up” but it becomes apparent Boo, the neighbour, killed Ewell to protect the children. It is a compliment to Atticus’ principled parenting that Scout – at the end of the play a more mature person – agrees with sheriff’s attempt to protect their neighbour Boo, remarks, “I mean, it’d be sort of like shooting a mockingbird, wouldn’t it.” She acknowledges Boo does not do any harm to anybody with his lifestyle – like a mockingbird – and shows the kind of empathy in that Atticus wants his children to have for other people. At the end of the play some of the conflict created by Tom Robinson’s trial is resolved but with the prevalence of racism it is never far from the surface.
In conclusion, Atticus is an impressive and admirable character who remains true to his ideals and principles of empathy, tolerance and equality in difficult circumstances created by the racism, intolerance and hatred around him. Instead of being a token lawyer for Tom, he stays true to the principle of equality before the law and delivers a committed and impressive defence. Atticus principles and actions act as a beacon of hope for more tolerance in a hostile environment.