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Since its debut in 1960, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird has been hugely successful. The book presents many thought-provoking ideas and life lessons that are relevant still today 60 years later. One of the book’s protagonists, Atticus Finch, has become one of fiction’s most beloved fathers for his extraordinary parenting skills. Over the course of the plot, the main protagonist, Scout, shows clear signs of maturing. She learns from her father’s wise words and applies them to situations accordingly. On the other side of the spectrum, the antagonist Bob Ewell sets a bad example for his children. The scope of this literary essay is the role of parenting in To Kill a Mockingbird, mainly focusing on Atticus Finch and comparing him to Bob Ewell. Moreover, the quotes and analyses presented were derived from the first mass market edition of To Kill a mockingbird, printed in December 1982.
Children are brought to the world with a fresh mind, comparable to an empty book. It is the parents’ duty to raise the children and fill their books with wise words, life lessons and much more. Whether good or bad, parenting plays a huge role in how a child turns out in the future. The phrase “The apple does not fall far from its tree.” could not be more accurate. Harper Lee presents this idea through the contrasting childhoods presented in the book.
For starters, Harper Lee uses the parenting style of Atticus Finch as the parent staple. Atticus Finch is the embodiment of the ideal parent, teaching his children race equality, justice and moral courage. He is overall very humanitarian and progressive in his beliefs. In contrast with the time’s spirit – by making children obey using spanking as punishment – Atticus is way ahead of his time, by using conversation to gain respect and mutual understanding. Atticus practices what he preaches, which makes him a rightful and honorable man. The kids refer to their dad by his actual name, Atticus, who accepts this because it marks them as his equal. The kids highly respect Atticus, however, they still tend to push the boundaries; for instance when they went to court without Atticus’s permission. This is partly intentional, according to Atticus parenting philosophy; children must be able to see the world through their own eyes. This would explain why Atticus allows Jem to join him to inform Helen Robinson about Tom Robinson’s death.
When Uncle Jack intervenes following a conflict between Scout and her cousin, he eagers to blame it on Scout. However, Scout tells him to listen to her part of the story before taking a party, “Well, in the first place you never stopped to gimme a chance to tell you my side of it”. The table has turned; now little Scout became the one lecturing. She shows clear signs of maturing by practicing her father’s wise words.
Furthermore, when Jem receives a weapon as a birthday present, Atticus has one remark:
Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.[…] “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy […] but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
In this quote, the mockingbird symbolizes an innocent life, causing no one any harm. The moral of the quote is therefore not to kill for killing’s sake. Approaching the end of the book, Scout applies this lesson to Boo Radley. She realizes that Boo too is like an innocent mockingbird and therefore his life should, in spite of his crime, be spared: ‘Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?’. To protect her mockingbird, Boo Radley from unwanted attention, Scout understands that they can’t report the death of Bob Ewell as a homicide. Throughout Jem’s and Scout’s childhoods, Atticus has remained faithful to the standards he has been instilling his children. On this occasion, Atticus was clearly faced with a dilemma. Initially, before he realized Bob Radley, Atticus convinced himself that his son Jem committed the murder. On one hand, he wanted to protect his child from the law, but on the other hand he did not want his parenting to be in vain; up to that point he had always lived up to the life lessons he had taught Jem and Scout. Conniving the law and his beliefs to save Jem would make him a hypocrite. Atticus explains this in the following quote:
If this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I’ve tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him […] if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him .
Harper Lee probably wants to emphasize that no lesson or belief is universal or rock-solid; sometimes it may be necessary to bend the law. Knowing that Bob Radley committed the crime, Atticus is again faced with a similar dilemma. To Atticus’s delight, Scout surpasses her father’s expectations by understanding the situation, thus showing how much she has matured.
Jem also shows signs of maturing throughout the book. He always respected his father’s words, save from the situation outside the jail when Atticus was threatened by a mob. Atticus demanded Jem to escort his sister back home, but he refuses, noticing the severity of the dire situation. He does not want to leave his father’s side. Judging by the quote below, Jem is used to obey his father. But this time he did not, showing a great deal of bravery and complex thinking.
We were accustomed to prompt […] to Atticus’s instructions, but from the way he stood Jem was not thinking about budging. “Go home, I said.” (said Atticus) Jem shook his head.
Jem and Scout both transform from bold caterpillars to two very kind-hearted individuals, thus Atticus mission as a parent clearly succeeded.
In the case of Bob Ewell, Harper Lee characterized him as being a terrible parent. He shows an egocentric and malevolent personality. He spends almost all of his money, funding his alcohol abuse. Repeatedly throughout the book, when encountering Ewell, he is almost always drunk. Unlike Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, who constantly fights her morphine addiction, Bob Ewell makes no effort to quit his addiction.
He is the father of seven children, whom he does not show any love or attention to; the parenting duty is left to his oldest daughter Mayella. With no authentic parenting, Bob obviously sets a bad example, which is reflected in his children. Locally, the Ewells are notorious for trouting, only showing up to school once in a blue moon. On the first day of school, Bob’s son Burris Ewell insults and disrespects his teacher, calling her a ‘snot-nosed slut of a schoolteacher’ leaving her in tears. Burris clearly shares many attributes with his impulsive and ill-mannered father.
Bob Ewell and Atticus Finch are two fundamentally different parents. Harper Lee portrays Bob as being an overall terrible parent with a vicious demeanor. Bob Ewells children are direct results of his horrible parenting – or the lack thereof – showing similar bad manners. In striking contrast to Bob, Atticus parents his children in a completely different manner. In a world filled with prejudice, Atticus teaches his children to be respectful to everyone and become overall good people. Moreover, he succeeds in teaching the children respect, despite not following the conventional parenting standards back then. Colored by his profession, Atticus believes in the power of conversation and mutual understanding, which is well acknowledged by his children. Through the Finches and the Ewells, Harper Lee demonstrates the significance of parenting.
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