Empathy and Masculinity in Harper Lee's to Kill a Mockingbird
Ch. 13 (pp. 239-261) in American Guy: Masculinity in American Law and Literature, edited by Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum (Oxford University Press, 2014)
31 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2015
Date Written: August 17, 2015
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird illustrates a troubled relationship between lawyering and empathy and between empathy and masculinity. To begin, empathetic understanding has two sides: it can produce compassionate or altruistic behavior, but there is also a strategic value: a competitor who understands the thoughts and feelings of others is better able to anticipate an opponent's next move and stay one step ahead. Atticus Finch demonstrates both aspects of empathy: his ability to imagine the world from the perspective of others makes him a more compassionate and helpful father and neighbor, but also a more effective lawyer, better able to cross-examine adverse witnesses and to make arguments that (might) appeal to jurors. Atticus understands better than anyone else in Maycomb the tragic predicament of Mayella Ewell, but he uses his empathy to harm her, that is, to help his client Tom Robinson by exposing her as a liar. The irony is that the empathetic insight that makes Atticus the best person to cross-examine Mayella also makes him (among all those who believe she is lying) feel the most compassion for her. But the role of zealous advocate leaves limited room for showing compassion to one's adversary.
Empathy connects with the novel’s focus on masculinity. The novel offers a new version of white manhood in the Jim Crow South. The conventional white southern male of the 1930s romanticized the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and adhered to a strict code of chivalry that required the use of violence to assuage insults to honor, particularly the honor of white southern women. According to this chivalric ideology, the greatest threat to white womanhood was black male predation, and the manly response was the lynching, not only of alleged black rapists but of other black men whose behavior seemed to question white supremacy. The novel offers Atticus as a male hero who rejects the white supremacist assumptions of lynching. Less obvious are the tools the novel uses to draw our attention to the concept of manhood and to invert its standard meaning. Atticus' courage is nonviolent, which the novel contrasts with cowardly violence; Atticus fights for a lost cause that is not the Confederacy, but its victim; and Atticus acts valiantly by protecting an innocent black man from the accusation of a white woman. Southern chivalry is turned on its head. The connection to empathy is that Atticus' sense of empathy is one of the key ways in which he systematically violates period expectations for masculinity.
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