Many people in To Kill a Mockingbird confuse courage with strength and believe that courage is the ability or willingness to use strength to get one’s way. However, the novel makes it abundantly clear that this understanding of courage is immature at best and is possibly wrong altogether. Instead, the novel proposes that courage isn’t about winning. Instead, it’s about thinking about something and choosing to do what’s right, even if doing so is difficult or guaranteed to fail.
When the reader first meets Scout, she believes that she’s very courageous: she’s hotheaded and consistently gets in fights to defend what she believes is right. Though Jem is a little old for fights like this, he, too, thinks of fighting as a more or less appropriate way to demonstrate one’s courage. This is supported as time goes on and Jem in particular, who loves football, is mortified that Atticus is the only father in town who doesn’t play in the inter-church football game because of his age. In Jem and Scout’s understanding, Atticus isn’t as courageous or as admirable as the other Maycomb fathers, simply because he’s a lawyer, which means that his contribution to the world isn’t something entirely tangible, unlike other fathers who are farmers or shop owners. In this sense, Scout and Jem tie a person’s worth to what they can do, but only if their capabilities are immediately visible to others.
This understanding of what courage means and what worth is begins to break down in February, before Tom Robinson’s trial. When Scout and Jem discover what turns out to be a rabid dog heading for their neighborhood, Mr. Tate forces Atticus to shoot the dog—which shows Atticus’s children that he can do things—he just chooses not to. At the same time, Atticus begins to encourage Scout in particular to not fight people who taunt her for Atticus’s role in the trial. Though Scout characterizes not fighting as cowardice, Atticus insists that it’s courageous to take the moral high ground and make the choice to not try to appear powerful with one’s fists, something that he embodies as he embarks on Robinson’s case.
Atticus knows full well that Robinson won’t win his case. In Maycomb, a small, Southern town in 1935, the idea that a black man accused of rape wouldn’t suffer consequences (no matter the truth) is far-fetched. Despite this, Atticus insists to Scout and Jem, and to other adults alike, that he has to take Robinson’s case and do his best to clear Robinson’s name. He feels he must do so even if he knows he’ll be unsuccessful, something that even Scout suggests at one point is actually silly and misguided, not courageous. Atticus, however, makes the case to Scout that courage doesn’t mean winning at all. Rather, courage, in Atticus’s understanding, means taking a stand for what’s right and seeing it through, even though he knows he won’t be successful. On the day of Tom Robinson’s death, Scout begins to embody this when she begins to understand that being a lady—something she previously found unappealing and boring—actually means doing exactly that. Scout begins to see that it takes courage and poise to navigate a roomful of opinionated, racist ladies, keep the conversation focused on inoffensive topics, and keep everyone’s refreshments in order, all while experiencing major emotional turmoil and trying not betraying that to her guests. In this situation, there is no winning to be had—Scout’s courage results only in a smooth meeting of the local missionary circle, which isn’t disrupted and made ugly by news of Robinson’s death. But it’s nevertheless a turning point in Scout’s understanding of what it means to be courageous, as it represents a form of courage she previously hadn’t thought worth considering.
In this sense, Mockingbird suggests that courage is playing the long game rather than focusing on immediate wins, something it illustrates clearly when Mr. Ewell, the man who accused Robinson, attempts to murder Scout and Jem. His attempt to murder children (and for that matter, his harassment and attempted crimes against Helen Robinson and Judge Taylor) is undeniably cowardly and morally reprehensible, but it’s possible that his attempt at violence was, in his mind, an attempt to salvage his family name by bringing down Atticus. The novel offers an example of true courage, meanwhile, when Boo Radley leaves his house for the first time in 25 years to save the children, something that clearly causes him distress, even if he knows it’s the right thing to do. With this, the novel makes allowances for the fact that at times, courage does mean acting out with one’s strength, as Boo does by killing Mr. Ewell in defense of the children. But in order to be genuine courage within the world of the novel, it must still happen only in times of great need, and must be in service of the greater good.