To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about Atticus, a lawyer, and his children, Jem and Scout, living in Alabama. Jem and Scout are infatuated with a spooky neighbor, "Boo" Radley, Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Tom is found guilty by a racist jury and is killed while trying to escape from prison. Bob Ewell, the winner of the case, attacks Jem and Scout to exact revenge but Boo saves them and kills Bob.
Scout is a very unusual little girl for her age whose idiosyncrasies separate her from her peers as well as her family. She is different from her peers in several ways. The first is that she has an advanced reading level and is a voracious reader. These attributes are a result of her father's influence on her reading habits. Second, she is quite the tomboy. She thumbs her nose at anything lady -- like (i.e. dresses, petticoats, etc.) and prefers the company of her brother and best friend Dill. In addition to these qualities, she is extremely combative and her quick temper has given her the reputation of a fighter. Her father's occupation and age also separate her from her peers. Most of Maycomb's citizens are farmers and laborers who live and work on the outskirts of town, whereas Atticus is a lawyer and works in an office in town. At 50 years old, he is also much older than her classmates' parents.
When the novel opens, Scout is an innocent, good-natured five-year-old who has yet to encounter the evils of humanity. However, as the novel progresses, Scout has her first contact with evil in the form of racial prejudice when classmates, neighbors, and family members begin telling her that Atticus is a nigger -- lover. This insult shocks Scout on two levels; she is shocked by the insults about her father and she is shocked by the use of the term nigger -- lover. Despite her suspicion of his profession (at her young age, she values brute strength more than emotional courage), Atticus is her hero. He embodies the very attributes to which she aspires; such as compassion, forthrightness, and a sense of social justice. It is hard for her to imagine anyone hating Atticus or disrespecting him. The insult shocks her because she has never heard the term before Atticus agreed to take the Tom Robinson case. Although she is aware of what a nigger is, she doesn't quite understand what the implication of nigger -- lover is. In her mind, Atticus is merely doing what he believe is right and just; however, this follows the recurrent theme of people being punished for their good intentions.
Atticus is a successful lawyer who is also sits on the state legislature; therefore, he qualifies as one of the most important men in Maycomb County. His extraordinary intelligence, compassion, commitment to justice, and forthrightness has earned him the respect of everyone in Maycomb. As mentioned before, he functions as the moral indicator in a town that has a difficult time determining that which is morally sound. However, he understands the complexities of a town like Maycomb; therefore, he is the man to whom people turn when they are in trouble. For example, Mr. Walter Cunningham employed Atticus' assistant in his entailment. Atticus accepted despite the fact that Walter could not pay him in cash. Atticus did accept the form of payment that fell within Walter's means.
Unfortunately, the same sense of justice and compassion for which Atticus is admired, becomes the reason his fellow townsmen despise him. His decision to defend Tom Robinson should not have come as a surprise given his history of defending undesirables. Nor should it have been a surprise that Atticus would fulfill his obligation to Tom rather than shirk his responsibility as a lawyer and firm believe in social/equal justice. Yet, even after the trial, Atticus is still revered by the town because he stood fast in the face of adversity.
Atticus practices exactly what he preaches about empathy and moral integrity. For him, the most important thing is to be able to look his children and his fellow man in the eyes, knowing that he has done the best that he could with what he had available. Although he holds people accountable for their actions, he understands that people behave according to their life circumstances and experience; hence, he continuously reminds Scout to try and put herself in other people's shoes.
Atticus stands true as one of the novels major heroic figures. The love he has for his children and the people of Maycomb proves him to be a great humanitarian. He is consistent in his behavior in both the public and private spheres. He holds himself and others accountable for both good and ill behavior as part of maintaining a high standard of integrity. In general, Atticus is the epitome of peace and justice as it would be in perfect world. Unfortunately, the world in which he lives is wholly imperfect. Yet, his optimism and steadfast belief in the goodness of mankind does not deter his mission to pursue equal justice for all.
Jem is in a more precarious situation than his sister. He is four years older than she is and, while not more acute in his awareness, he is certainly more sensitive to the evil he encounters through the course of the novel. From the lie that Mr. Nathan Radley tells him regarding the old oak tree to the verbal attacks made by Mrs. Dubose, Jem cannot easily process the inconsistency and horrific nature of the adult world. The Tom Robinson trial is his breaking point as he discovers that in his world, race is the ultimate factor in deciding justice. He grows increasingly disillusioned and cynical as his understanding of the truth about the world he is entering becomes clearer to him. His only two saving graces are Boo Radley with whom he establishes a loving and pure relationship and his father, Atticus.
To Jem, Atticus is the epitome of courage and manhood in that stands by his convictions and will only use brute force if and when necessary. This is opposed to Scout who admires Atticus more when he demonstrates his exceptional talent with guns. Jem is also more introspective than his sister. He takes time with himself to think through the traumatic events that he witnesses. This is his method of finding his place in a world that up, until Boo Radley entered his life, had been relatively simple.
By the end of the novel, the reader finds comfort in knowing that Jem has not succumbed completely to despair and cynicism. Unlike Mr. Dolphus Raymond, Jem recognizes that there are reasons to continue fighting for and believing in humanity. Both Boo Radley and Atticus have much to do with his change in attitude by displaying impressive examples of faith and hope. Despite suffering at the hands of a religiously fanatic father, Boo finds his way back into the world through the children. He regains the whimsy he lost in his twilight years. In spite of the guilty verdict and the death of Tom Robinson, Atticus holds on to the belief that racial inequality will become part of a tragic past in which they all will play admirable roles.