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Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird: Examples & Quotes

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  • 0:01 What Is Empathy
  • 0:27 Fine Upstanding Gentleman
  • 2:47 Apple Doesn't Fall Far: Scout
  • 4:22 Apple Doesn't Fall Far: Jem
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Harper Lee builds on the concept of empathy in her novel ''To Kill a Mockingbird''. We are introduced to characters who work to see and feel the world from another person's point of view.

Empathy

Empathy is defined as having the ability to share in the way a person feels. When someone feels empathy toward another human being they are, in effect, letting them know that they have walked in their shoes. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is held up as the hallmark of what it means to have empathy and, as a parent, he makes it his goal to instill that same feeling in his children, Scout and Jem.

Fine Upstanding Gentleman

Atticus Finch is known around town as an honest, kind, and dedicated lawyer. He is considerate of others' feelings, and his sense of morality is strong and all-encompassing. Atticus is able and willing to put himself in the shoes of others, and he goes out of his way to ensure that their feelings are spared when times get tough. We see a wonderful example of his inordinate kindness and empathy in his dealing with Mr. Cunningham, a poor client who could not afford to pay his bills in the traditional way. He would leave goods on the porch as payment for the work Atticus had done: 'a load of stove wood in the back yard. Later a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps.'

Atticus, being the gentleman he was, never acknowledged the payments from Mr. Cunningham. He knew that a conversation would only serve to embarrass him and emphasize the fact that he was poor and couldn't pay. Atticus tried to instill this understanding in Scout, when she mistakenly insisted that Atticus speak to Mr. Cunningham on the porch when he was trying to leave his payment. Atticus gently lets Scout know that in the future it is better to let him leave his payments anonymously.

There is no denying Atticus' sense of empathy when he chooses to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Even though his decision will cause him and his family grief, Atticus cannot refuse helping this man who needs his abilities so badly. He explains the situation to Scout: 'if I didn't I couldn't hold my head up in town.' Later Atticus tells his brother that if he doesn't take the case of defending Tom he wouldn't be able to face Scout and Jem.

Because Atticus has such a good heart and a strong conscious, he extends his ability to walk in the shoes of others to Bob Ewell, the father of Mayella Ewell, the woman who accused Tom Robinson. Atticus understands the anger and shame that lives inside Ewell. He knows that it stems from shame and embarrassment. When Bob Ewell tries to shame him by spitting on him, Atticus doesn't get angry. He tells Jem, 'I destroyed his last shred of credibility... So, if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one beating, that's something I'll gladly take.' Atticus works tirelessly as a parent to help his children learn lessons of humility, kindness, and empathy, and he is successful in his task.

Apple Doesn't Fall Far: Scout

In the beginning of the novel, we see that Scout has much to learn about empathy. She has little tolerance for people and she takes great pleasure in making fun of others. She makes fun of Walter Cunningham, who is poor. She invited Walter to lunch, and when his manners are horrid, she can't hold her tongue. She ridicules him, and Calpurnia, the Finches' housekeeper, has something to say about it: 'Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house's yo' company, and don't you let me catch you remarkin' on their ways like you was so high and mighty!'

We see Calpurnia and Atticus striving to help Scout develop the traits that will set her on the right path. They encourage her to try to understand other people, rather than make fun of them. Atticus tells her that in order to truly understand another human being you must, 'climb into his skin and walk around in it.'

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