“To Kill a Mockingbird” and Empathy

A scene from the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird" featuring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout

“You never really understand a person…until you climb into his shoes and walk around it.” This endearing line from the famous literary figure Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird became the central theme of the novel – marking the Maycomb society’s refusal to understand Boo Radley and Tom Robinson as a tantamount equivalent to the people’s adamant clinging to their own prejudicial notions that rest on a standard of morality that was as superficial as skin color.

This was the main core of Christian teaching. Jesus Christ has perceived beyond the conventions of morality in the early society in order to deliver the good news – regardless of the people’s gender and social status. He became the hero of the widows, those who were afflicted with illnesses, those people who were regarded as “sinners,” and like a shepherd, managed to rescue His lost flock – in spite of the stigma presented by the culture and tradition. Indeed, in the beginning it has been proclaimed:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, New International Version)

Such statement did not delineate creation according to the boundaries of skin color and ethnicity, it is only with humanity’s folly did the world succumb into such divisions. In this context, we are taught to accept a person and look at him/ her through the lens of his/ her own perspectives. In doing that we would be able to learn the gift of empathy and truly understand – and accept.

This is difficult to achieve, because like theMaycombCounty, our society is racked by its own share of opinions and self-righteousness. Even the level-headed and principled Atticus Finch had to face the people’s gross assumptions and judgments for serving Tom Robinson’s defense counsel. Yet, in truly getting to know the people and looking at things in their own point of view, this feat is not inconceivable. For it is stated:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, New International Version)

In adopting this framework, it would not be difficult for the people to understand one another, for they will no longer be passing judgment against each other. They would gain cognizance that each person has inherent worth and dignity and like them, each possesses his/ her own set of philosophies and motivations that are not very different to the ones in their possession.

Indeed, Jem had to overcome this difficulty in his reading episodes with Mrs. Dubose. At this time, Jem and Scout were already dealing with the social stigma brought by their father’s siding with Tom Robinson, and in today’s context, one could easily sympathize with Jem’s anger.   After all, Mrs. Dubose was not a lovable character. Initially, Jem could not see the reason why he has to do goodness for a lady who seemed bent with hatred and bitterness, and who has openly insulted his father for taking up Tom Robinson’s case. Up to Mrs. Dubose’s death, it was made clear that Jem has been doing this, only on the virtue of following Atticus’ orders. However, Jem gradually came to understand the source of that hatred and bitterness, and while he was unable to do anything about it, to relieve the old lady of her anger until the last few moments of her death, the experience made him cognizant of the real purpose why Atticus has ordered him to read for Mrs. Dubose every afternoon. Getting to understand Mrs. Dubose made all the difference.


—- “Being Atticus Finch: The Professional Role of Empathy in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” Harvard Law Review, 117, no. 5. (March 2004). Accessed 27 January 2010 from www.jstor.org.

Esperon, Cheri. “Discrimination and Stereotypes in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” Associated Content. (16 October 2005). Accessed 27 January 2010 from www.associatedcontent.com

Holcomb, Mark. “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 55 No. 4.University of CaliforniaPress. (2002). Accessed 27 January 2010 from www.jstor.org

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1963

Sally. “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The Bible Network Blogs. (13 September 2008). Accessed 27 January 2010 from www.forum.bible.org

Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.New York: Henry Holt. 2006