Yes, that’s right, Atticus, as in Atticus Finch. I know he’s fictional, and I don’t care. It was Atticus that was responsible for me wanting to be a lawyer, and it was him that made me realise, a few years later, that it wasn’t at all the career for me? Why? Because I was young and naïve and sweetly altruistic, and I thought that I, like him, would be able to nobly do my bit to make the world a better place. And then I grew up and found out that the life of a Legal Aid lawyer was rather more banal than spending their days single-handedly averting travesties of justice. (Plus, with the way the cuts are going, there won’t be any Legal Aid left in a few years, and I don’t think I’d have the heart for being a big City lawyer. As for working for the CPS, I just don’t really think it’s me.)
Of course, the genius of To Kill a Mockingbird is that Atticus doesn’t win. And that, perhaps, is why this book has ruined my appreciation of any underdog story involving an innocent man wrongly accused of a heinous crime, with only his determined lawyer (with limited resources but more courage, intelligence and compassion than all of his opponents put together) to back him up. Because they invariably win. And that’s not how life is. Every time I re-read the book (and I studied it for GCSE English: I read it plenty of times, I can tell you!), there’s part of me that wants to turn the page and find a different ending, to find that the jury has seen sense, and Tom Robinson has been declared innocent, and Atticus’ perseverance and goodness and honesty have won the day. And yet there’s another part of me that knows it can’t be, because that’s not how the world was, and that’s not how it is, and that’s not what Harper Lee knew and so not what she could write.
Because I think what Atticus taught me, something that I realise more and more the older we get, is that the world is not just or right or fair, and even though I might try in my own small way to do good, that’s often not enough. Without wanting to get all political (because that’s not what I’m writing this for), I cannot help but think of the Trayvon Martin case, and the surreal moment when I read the outcome of the case. The feeling when I saw that headline was just the same as when I read the foreman of the jury declare that Tom Robinson has been found guilty: there is a moment of disbelief, simply because this cannot be. This does not fit with my logic, does not fit in with how I see and understand the world. And then I have to remind myself of the sad fact that the world does not always fit in with me.
I have never quite been sure of what I think about the remark that “Atticus Finch… [is] the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long on a case like that”. It’s not enough, I want to scream, what good is it keeping them out ten minutes or ten years if the verdict is still going to be the same? I am young, and impatient for change, and I’m not yet resigned to the injustice of our world. I don’t know if Atticus can really be my hero, because I don’t know whether I would have the strength for a fight like that, knowing that there was no chance of winning, and sometimes I wonder whether that kind of false hope can do any good at all. But, you know, good doesn’t always lose (although it doesn’t win as often as in, say ‘Garrow’s Law’), and I suppose that’s some consolation to draw. And if Atticus didn’t fight, and Atticus didn’t make that jury stop just for a second and think about what they were doing, then who would? Maybe it isn’t the winning that makes the difference, so much as what we learn through the fight.