In the grand scheme of things, each of us is working hard to see ourselves prosper. When we are fighting for survival, why should any of us take the time to feel for our fellow human beings? In her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee implies that having the ability to feel for others or to show empathy not only benefits others, but can lead to personal gains as well. This is best demonstrated through the characters of Atticus, Jem, and Scout Finch. An obvious example of this claim is through the character of Atticus Finch. Because of Atticus’ ability to empathize with everyone, he is well respected by the town, even when he is doing some controversial things such as defending Tom Robinson. Atticus’ use of empathy is apparent during the trial, where Atticus is blaming Mayella Ewell for falsely accusing Tom Robinson of rape. Rather than explicitly attacking Mayella, Atticus says, “I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness of state, but my pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man’s life at stake.” (Lee-203). Atticus is still delivering the same basic message, but rather than blatantly accusing Mayella of lying, he is empathizing with her and in a way justifying her actions, however wrong they may have been. By conveying his points in ways that do not make others feel like they are being personally attacked, Atticus is a well-respected member of society.
We learn of the extent of this respect when Scout complains: “Despite Atticus’ shortcomings as a parent, people were content to reelect him to the state legislature without opposition. I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar.” (Lee- 243). Even after he lost the controversial Tom Robinson case, the town still elected Atticus to serve on the state legislature since he was so respected because of his ability to empathize with each and every member of Maycomb. We also see this empathy in Jem, who clearly demonstrates more understanding by the end of the novel. We first get a glimpse of this after he helped end Ms. Dubose’s morphine addiction before her eventual death. After she dies, Jem receives a white camellia flower from Ms. Dubose. At first, Jem is angry, since he thinks Ms. Dubose is getting back at him, but Atticus explains how Ms. Dubose was a brave lady because she was able to end her morphine addiction before she died. “Jem picked up the camellia, and when I went off to bed, I saw him fingering the wide petals.” (Lee-112). Jem is listening to Atticus’ advice and is trying to empathize with Ms. Dubose, whom he is finally able to respect.
We see Jem’s newfound maturity develop throughout the novel. After Atticus loses the case, Jem begins to make sense of the world. “If everyone’s alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time… it’s because he wants to stay inside.” (Lee-227). Jem is obviously maturing when he empathizes with Boo Radley, a character everyone despises despite not even knowing him. As he makes sense of the world, Jem begins to empathize with even the most unlikely of people, leading to increased wisdom. Even Scout, the least mature and most clueless of the Finches, learns the skill of empathy by the end of the novel. Initially, Scout was always quick to judge others and saw things only as black or white. She saw Aunt Alexandra as mean and unfair. However, she changes her opinion after seeing her aunt stay calm and ladylike even after news of Tom Robinson’s death. “After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.” (Lee-237).
Scout is beginning to respect Aunt Alexandra for her positive aspects, rather than showing disdain for her shortcomings. Scout also demonstrates a heightened sense of understanding to Boo Radley, specifically, when Boo wants Scout to walk him home. “I would lead him through our house, but I would never lead him home.” (Lee- 278). Scout understands that it would be embarrassing to Boo to have an eight year old girl leading him home and it would give possible onlookers the wrong impression. Instead, Scout had Boo hold her hand so it would look like he is walking Scout, which would seem normal. By empathizing with people she once did not respect, Scout has obviously come a long way from the immature little girl that she was at the start of the novel. Empathy is not just there to make us feel good about ourselves. Rather, the ability to empathize makes us better human beings and it lifts society up as well. The Finch family is a shining example of this ability to empathize, as they combat racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.
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