Reconstructing Atticus Finch
Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law
Michigan Law Review, Vol. 97, P. 139, 1999
'Reconstructing Atticus Finch' is a reexamination of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The essay takes another look at Atticus's tactics in the defense of Tom Robinson, particularly from the perspective of the alleged victim, Mayella Ewell. The essay considers a previously unasked question: What if Mayella was telling the truth?
Texts, especially literary texts, are always subject to reinterpretation. Notwithstanding the reaction of generations of readers, it turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird contains a submerged narrative in which Mayella's story of rape becomes credible.
Once we contemplate the possibility that Mayella might have been raped, we can no longer unquestioningly accept Atticus Finch as a paragon of lawyerly virtue. It may be that he was simply another working lawyer, using the tools at hand in his best effort to exonerate a client. And since the crime was rape, Atticus used the time-worn strategy of attacking the victim's character. That tactic has been roundly condemned in other contexts; on the other hand, it may be the only available defense in a prosecution corrupted by racism.
Viewing Mayella as a possible crime victim rather than as a conniving liar requires us to ask a series of uncomfortable questions. Do ethics depend on the guilt or innocence of one's client? Are some tactics simply impermissible? May stereotypes ever be exploited by trial counsel, even in defense of the innocent?
JEL Classification: K41
Date posted: May 15, 2000