Courage in To Kill a Mockingbird

[Adapted from an in-class assessment].

imagesIn chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee explains through Atticus that real, moral courage is being self-reliant and defending one’s own views, regardless of what others think. Throughout the chapter, Mrs. Dubose harasses Scout and Jem, the latter of whom, enraged, trashes her garden later on. Atticus makes Jem redress his mistake by reading to her for two hours for a month. It is revealed that the reading was a distraction for her withdrawals. When Atticus calls Mrs. Dubose a lady, Jem is offended, to which Atticus replies that “courage is [not] a man with a gun in his hand.” Typically, courage is equated with bravery, to the point that they are considered interchangeable, but Atticus wants to disabuse this idea: Courage is not a matter of macho, gun-slinging manliness, unlike what most people think, as in the classic Western cowboy, who rides through the town dueling bandits. Courage is not about aggressiveness, but conquering fear, albeit of a different kind—not physical, but moral. Real courage, says Atticus, is “when you know you’re licked before you win but you begin anyway.” As licked means beaten, courage is knowing you are at a disadvantage, yet through self-determination, you “begin anyway” because it is a noble, conscionable cause. Atticus himself is a model of courage insofar as he has taken up the Robinson case, which, he admits, he had already lost; but still he tries, faithful and steadfast, despite the odds. He then says, “She [Mrs. Dubose] was the bravest person I ever knew,” and for several reasons. He explains, “According to her views,” which were “a lot different from mine… she died beholden to nothing and nobody.” By saying she had her own deviant views, Atticus shows that courage is about being a free-thinker, an independent thinker who thinks for themselves and fights for those views. Likewise, Atticus is criticized for defending a black man; his views are opposed and differ from everyone else’s, yet he still upholds his values. Mrs. Dubose’s personal philosophy was one of self-reliance—even if it meant death. When Atticus says “she [did not] die beholden,” he notes that beholden means dependent upon and indebted to, and therefore reliant. Mrs. Dubose was determined to break her morphine addiction before she died, and even if it made her suffer, she would not be dependent on the medicine or images-1.jpegthe doctors, but only herself and her will, with which she fought strongly. Thus, she fought her own internal battle and remained self-reliant until the end. Compare this to Atticus’ definition of real courage: Unreal courage is the man with the gun who fights external conflicts, but real courage is the old lady who, on her deathbed, fights an addiction and wins, who fights internal conflicts, who fulfills her own views, no matter how different they are. In conclusion, through Atticus, Harper Lee demonstrates that real courage is more akin to integrity than bravery, so far as it is about sticking to one’s views, fighting one’s own battles, and staying true to oneself in the face of defeat.


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