To Kill a Mockingbird

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Themes and Colors
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Prejudice Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Courage Theme Icon
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To Kill a Mockingbird, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Courage Theme Icon

Many people, including Jem and Scout when they're young, mix up courage with strength. They think that courage is the ability and willingness to use strength to get your way. But Atticus defines courage as "when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what." Courage, in To Kill a Mockingbird, is not about winning or losing. It's about thinking long and hard about what's right instead of relying on personal prejudice or gut reaction, and then doing what's right whether you win or lose. To Kill a Mockingbird is filled with examples of courage, from Mrs. Dubose's fight against her morphine addiction, to Atticus's determination to face down the racism of the town, to Mr. Underwood's willingness to face down his own racist feelings and support what he knows, in the end, is right.

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Courage Quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird

Below you will find the important quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird related to the theme of Courage.
Chapter 1 Quotes
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. . . . There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Scout describes the setting where the rest of the novel will take place, evocatively depicting the small-town life that defined her childhood. However, in some ways this description is deceptive. It suggests that nothing ever happened in Maycomb – that, in a certain way, it was located outside history, its inhabitants leading their lives in sleepy continuity without having to face the problems or changes taking place outside the town's borders.

The rest of the novel will show this not to be the case. However, this doesn't mean that this depiction is a lie: here, Scout focuses on the way she herself experienced the town when she was a child, before she recognized that Maycomb was indeed part of history. Already, the last sentence of this passage suggests a wider context: "nothing to fear but fear itself" recalls a famous line from Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural presidential address in 1933 (a reference that also helps to place the novel in a specific time period). Within a broader context of the Great Depression and of the rise of Nazi Germany, the book will focus on courage in the more local milieu of Maycomb, though as the novel will show Roosevelt's suggestion will be just as relevant in Maycomb as in the rest of the world.


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Chapter 9 Quotes
"If you shouldn't be defendin' him, then why are you doin' it?"

"For a number of reasons," said Atticus. "The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again."

"Atticus, are we going to win it?"

"No, honey."

"Then why-"

"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win," Atticus said.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker), Tom Robinson
Page Number: 100-101
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Atticus teaches Scout a difficult lesson about morality – one that goes counter to her own childhood impulses. Scout has heard other children at school criticize Atticus, and when she asks why, he tells her that he has decided to defend in court Tom Robinson, a black man accused of murder, even though he knows there's no chance of winning. Until now, Scout has considered that physically fighting and winning is what it means to be courageous. Now, her father attempts to explain to her that it can show even more courage to strive for something even when one knows that failure is inevitable.

Rather than acting because he will win, Atticus chooses to defend Tom Robinson because he knows that it is the right thing to do. Interestingly, even though many people in town are prejudiced and disagree with Atticus's choice, for Atticus it is the fact that everyone in town knows him and his own beliefs that serves as another motivation for him to act according to his beliefs. He believes that only by standing up for his ideas can he then, in turn, be seen as a representative of the community (even if the community disagrees with some of those beliefs). In order to be morally consistent, Atticus believes, he must act on behalf of human dignity – and more specifically, this man's dignity – regardless of the end result.

Chapter 10 Quotes
After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myself to a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn't fight any more, her daddy wouldn't let her.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker), Cecil Jacobs
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

Scout has long prided herself on what she has considered to be courage: refusing to back down when others insult her or her family, and fighting as strongly as she can. But she has slowly come to accept Atticus's quite different view of courage. For him, courage does not only mean striving for something when you knows that failure is inevitable; it also means having the strength of character to accept what others may say about you without physically fighting back. Instead, he teaches that keeping your head held high, confident of what the right decision really is.

Scout still uses the word "cowardice" to refer to her decision not to fight, but the word is mainly a relic of her instinctive attitude towards courage – she is slowly beginning to accept her father's alternative approach instead. 

"Atticus, you must be wrong...."

"How's that?"

"Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong...."
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Tom Robinson
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In the small, tight-knit town of Maycomb, what "most folks seem to think" can quickly come to mean what is actually true. Such "group think" and the pressure it puts on individuals to join in it help to preserve and expand all sorts of prejudice. Here we see such logic at work, as Scout questions her father's choices based on what most people in the town think about those choices.

Scout is still struggling to reconcile these two things: it's difficult for her to see how "most folks" can be wrong, since it makes sense that what the majority thinks about something must be right – especially in a town small enough that it can seem like everyone thinks the same way about something, such as the Tom Robinson case. But the ellipses (three dots after Scout's sentences) seem to suggest that Scout is not at all confident in going against her father: she understands that there are elements at work that she may not have yet understood.

Chapter 11 Quotes
It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, it is actually Atticus who is telling Scout and Jem about the courage of another person, Mrs. Dubose, who, with the help of Jem's reading lessons, was battling her morphine addiction before she died. As Atticus explains what makes such an act courageous, Scout is able to connect this story with Atticus's own courage. In school she has learned a limited definition of courage, one that is restricted to war heroes and to those who face violence and physical danger. She is still having to adjust her expectations for what counts as courage as Atticus defines it: adhering to one's ethical principles, regardless of how unpopular those principles may be.

The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.
Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

Atticus is attempting to explain to Scout and Jem what it is that made Mrs. Dubose's quiet, persistence fight against morphine so courageous. His reference to "majority rule" reflects his own expertise as a lawyer, deeply schooled in the Constitution and in the laws and history of the country. In the United States, of course, we live legally by majority rule – a majority elects a president, a majority of politicians vote for our laws, and even in a jury, a majority can convince the minority enough to ensure a unanimous sentence. Usually, this process works well enough, and Atticus obviously isn't calling for a radical dissolution of majority rule.

Still, he shows in his comments here both that there are profound weaknesses to the idea of majority rule, and that there are other, significant elements of human existence – a person's conscience, for instance – that don't abide by this standard. Majority rule, for instance, pays little attention to ideas that may be unpopular, so it can confirm existing prejudices. Atticus suggests, however, that a person's conscience always knows, deep down, what is good and evil, what is right and wrong. On an individual level, then, one must fight against what on a social level is accepted and widespread.

It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

As in the rest of his lesson to Jem and Scout, here Atticus emphasizes what to him is the true definition of courage, a definition that, he is aware, could easily seem counterintuitive to them. He is focusing on the concrete example of Mrs. Dubose, a woman who may certainly be prejudiced, but in other ways is courageous (and so his willingness to recognize her courage is also part of Atticus's nuanced, complex understanding of the meaning of good and evil).

Here, Atticus expresses a bit more optimism than he does elsewhere. Courage means persisting, seeing something through even if – perhaps especially when – you know that you are most likely to fail. But Atticus also suggests that such a process is not absolutely condemned to failure. Indeed, holding out hope that you may win can be a powerful way to motivate yourself, even while remaining realistic and committed despite overwhelming odds.

Chapter 14 Quotes
Dill's eyes flickered at Jem, and Jem looked at the floor. Then he rose and broke the remaining code of our childhood. He went out of the room and down the hall. "Atticus," his voice was distant, "can you come here a minute, sir?"

Beneath its sweat-streaked dirt Dill's face went white. I felt sick.

Jem was standing in a corner of the room, looking like the traitor he was. "Dill, I had to tell him," he said. "You can't run three hundred miles off without your mother knowin'."

We left him without a word.
Related Characters: Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem) (speaker), Jean Louise Finch (Scout), Atticus Finch, Charles Baker Harris (Dill)
Page Number: 187-188
Explanation and Analysis:

Dill has run away from his own house in a town that is quite some distance away, and has snuck into the Finch's home, where Jem has found him hiding under the bed. As Scout watches, Jem calls to their father in order to tell him that Dill is here. Immediately, a line is drawn between Jem, on the one hand, and Scout and Dill, on the other.

Scout takes it for granted that one must never tell on another child – that there are secrets that can't be shared with adults. Jem, however, no longer adheres to this assumption: instead, he acts based on the knowledge that Dill's parents will be worried about him, and that it's the right thing to do to tell Atticus that Dill is here. From Scout's perspective, Jem is a traitor, but this is because she is still a child, while he has begun to grow up. The book doesn't necessarily paint adulthood as always better and more advanced than childhood, but it does suggest that moving into adulthood is an important step, one that Scout isn't yet ready to take.