Courage is displayed by several characters in the novel. Firstly Atticus is presented as a courageous man for agreeing to defend Tom Robinson even when he knows it will cause difficulties for himself and his family. He also knows he has little hope of winning the case. He is particularly courageous when he spends the night alone guarding Tom Robinson’s prison cell because he knows it is highly likely a lynch mob will try to take Tom. Indeed throughout the novel Atticus takes a stand against racism and encourages his children to do the same, Don’t say nigger, Scout.

Atticus also shows courage when he shoots the mad dog, as despite being referred to in his youth as One–Shot Finch, he has not used a gun for 30 years. If Atticus misses, there will be a mad dog running free in the neighbourhood. In attempting to shoot the dog after so many years without even holding a gun, Atticus is being extremely brave. However, Atticus has not told Jem and Scout about his ability to shoot as he does not want them to think that the ability to shoot well with a gun is what makes someone courageous.

There are also other examples of courage throughout the novel. Miss Maudie shows courage when she refuses to be upset that her house has burned down. Instead she remains optimistic and reminds everyone she will now be able to have the bigger garden she has always craved. Boo Radley shows courage when he prevents Bob Ewell from harming Jem and Scout despite the fact that this means leaving the security of his house.

Mrs Dubose is another courageous character. She has been addicted to the painkiller morphine and is determined to be free from this addiction before she dies. Without realising it, when Jem reads to her he is helping her to overcome her addiction. Her decision is even more courageous when it becomes apparent that there really is no need for her to go through the pain of being morphine free as she is going to die anyway.

However, she does it for her own personal satisfaction as she does not want to be addicted to the drug at the time of her death. Mrs Dubose is being courageous but very few people in Maycomb will even know she is going through a very difficult personal battle to beat her addiction. Atticus feels this makes her even braver and this is why he wants Jem and Scout to witness what she is doing. He wants them to understand that being courageous sometimes means doing difficult things that other people will never understand or will criticise you for. He is preparing Scout and Jem for the bravery they will all have to show during Tom Robinson’s trial.

How is the theme of courage shown in the novel?

In To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee shows the theme of courage through:

  • Atticus defending Tom Robinson
  • Atticus’ attitude towards guns
  • Mrs Dubose’s determination to be morphine-free at the time of her deat.

Atticus defending Tom Robinson

How does Harper Lee show this?

Atticus knows he must defend Tom Robinson. He feels he could never be proud of himself again or expect Jem and Scout to trust him again if he did not. He also knows that many lawyers in the county, if asked to take Tom’s case, would not properly defend him as they would automatically assume he was guilty.


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 to Scout)


Here Atticus is telling Scout that if he lacked the courage to defend Tom Robinson in his trial then he would not be a very good lawyer or a very good father. He is being courageous in defending Tom and he wants Jem and Scout to understand how important it is that he does the right thing.

Atticus’ attitude towards guns

How does Harper Lee show this?

Scout and Jem are amazed that their father is so talented when using a gun but they are shocked that he has chosen to keep this skill away from them. Atticus is also reluctant to allow them to have guns. When he eventually gives in and allows them to have a gun each at Christmas he reminds both Scout and Jem that he would prefer them to shoot at tin cans. He does not think it is courageous to use a gun as this automatically gives a person an advantage over a defenceless animal.


I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. (Atticus to Jem)


Atticus wants Scout and Jem to understand the value of real courage. Courage does not mean having a gun, it means doing the right thing such as defending Tom Robinson even when you know there is very little chance of winning.

Mrs Dubose’s determination to be morphine-free at the time of her death

How does Harper Lee show this?

Mrs Dubose is willing to go through both physical and mental pain in order to ensure that she dies without being addicted to morphine. When Jem reads to her each day she sets the alarm clock later and later so that gradually more and more time passes before she needs to take morphine until eventually she does not need it at all.


You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew. (Atticus to Scout)


Here Atticus is explaining to Jem that courage comes in many forms. Mrs Dubose was determined to die without needing to rely on morphine. She achieved this but her success is tinged with sadness because she died before she could properly enjoy being morphine free. Atticus believes this makes her even more courageous.


How does Harper Lee use the theme of courage in her novel?

By showing that courage comes in many forms.

Courage can mean doing something even when you know you will never win.

Sometimes the people you would least expect, such as the elderly (Mrs Dubose) or the most peace loving (Atticus), can be the most courageous people in society.

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