Analysis of Literary Works

‘Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand.’ How does Harper Lee show the theme of courage in this novel?

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The act of courage is played out by characters in different forms in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It takes place with small acts such as Miss Maudie not complaining when her house is burned down, or acts which changes the entire way of a character is perceived, such as Mrs. Dubose’s fight against her addiction.

Harper Lee first presents courage through Mrs. Dubose. Both Scout and Jem share the same idea of Mrs. Dubose in the beginning of the novel, one where they believe Mrs. Dubose to be the ‘meanest person who ever lived’. They support this belief with her regular attitude towards them. She tests their patience with her rude comments about their father, purposely enraging them. When Jem destroys her camellias to express his outrage, Mrs. Dubose asks Atticus to make him read to her; a punishment that Scout includes herself in to help her brother. This reveals the children to Mrs. Dubose’s pain, which is later explained by Atticus after her death. Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict, and even though it would have allowed her to die without pain, she chose the path of soberness, with the ideal of dying ‘beholden to nothing and nobody’. The general rudeness and racism of Mrs. Dubose becomes highlighted less after this episode, making her an embodiment of courage. She transforms from the ‘meanest person’ to the ‘bravest person’. Atticus, in this particular episode, teaches Jem that real courage was not ‘a man with a gun in his hand’ but someone who knows they might lose but begins anyways and ‘see(s) it through no matter what’.

Atticus, himself, is also a representation of mental courage. Being devoted to moral ethics, Atticus refrains from following societal orders when he is given the responsibility to defend an innocent black man in court. Living in a highly prejudiced county, Atticus was judged not only by those around him, but also his own family. He was requested to step down, and even faced profane language directed towards him. However, he followed by his morals, and tried to defend Tom Robinson with his full capacity. Yet Atticus displays physical courage in one particular scene where he goes to defend Tom from the mob. Even though he was not physically suitable to fight off the mob, he still made sure to be present to defend Tom somehow. His entire character guarantees readers’ respect and empathy.

Having a very influential father, both Jem and Scout present small acts of courage themselves. Jem was always proud of himself, but upon approaching puberty, Jem develops certain changes in character, taking up responsibilities. When Dill tries to hide from his aunt, and goes to Scout and Jem for help, Jem does not allow the secrecy. He tells Atticus, which upsets Scout, who believes he had broken the ‘remaining code of (their) childhood’. However, on Jem’s behalf, acting along his conscience was a courageous act indeed. Scout is courageous for her power of will. After her father asks her not to hit someone just because they insult her, she refrains from doing such even when she is tempted later. She also acts courageous in last part when she allows Arthur to take escort her back to the Radley house, breaking the code of societal belief. She refuses to accept Arthur as the ‘malevolent phantom’ and instead presents him as the ‘gentleman’ he really is.

Miss Maudie, even after having her house burned down and losing everything she owned, did not complain. She presented moral courage and compensated her loss by saying her house was ‘old’ anyway. Arthur, at the end, showed courage by ending his isolation and facing the real world to save his children from grave danger.

Thus, the act of courage is renowned in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Harper Lee opens up an area for respect in readers by adding such an honourable aspect to her characters. She also allows readers to acknowledge what real courage is really like, enlightening readers at the same time as the characters.


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