Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. There are many definitions for empathy that encompass a broad range of emotional states, including caring for other people and having a desire to help them; experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling; and making less distinct the differences between the self and the other. Compassion and sympathy are terms associated with empathy (definitions vary). Compassion is often defined as an emotion we feel when others are in need, which motivates us to help them. Harper Lee put in a lot of work in this novel because this novel reflects her childhood. In that work, she added a lot of empathy (cognitive, emotional, somatic, etc.) throughout this novel. But, readers like me found one quote that was so powerful, this quote continues to inspire us around the globe. This quote was from Atticus: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This important snippet of conversation from Chapter 3 finds Atticus giving Scout a little more than the typical advice to walk a mile in someone’s shoes; its the crucial piece of moral advice that governs her development for the rest of the novel. The simple wisdom of Atticus’s words reflects the uncomplicated manner in which he guides himself by this sole principle. His ability to relate to his children is manifested in his restatement of this principle in terms that Scout can understand (“climb into his skin and walk around in it”). Scout struggles, with varying degrees of success, to put Atticus’s advice into practice and to live with sympathy and understanding toward others. At the end of the book, she succeeds in comprehending Boo Radley’s perspective, fulfilling Atticus’s advice in Chapter 3 and providing the novel with an optimistic ending despite the considerable darkness of the plot. Harper Lee’s compelling use of empathy can be seen by studying various examples from people. This includes Atticus Finch, Scout Finch, and Aunt Alexandra. Afterward, you will see that all of the symbolic moments together that produce the development and understanding of empathy in this novel as “a simple love story.”
Atticus Finch is the father of two young children, Jem and Scout. Throughout the book Jem and his little sister Scout learn a lot about the place they call home, Maycomb County. Atticus is a very responsible parent who teaches his children the lessons they need to become honest and dignified people later in life. He teaches them not to judge someone before they really get to know them. A quote to support this is from Atticus in chapter 9, “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home” (76). If you’re engaged in bitter warfare with someone, can you still be their friend at the same time? (Duh. That’s why the word ‘frenemy’ was invented.) But seriously-Atticus would say, sure can. Atticus says this to Scout when he talks about the trial. He warns the children that things may get bitter; after all, everyone in town has very distinct opinions about the trial, one way or the other. However, Atticus cautions his children against bitterness. Even though the town may be rife with divisive opinions, they ultimately have to remember that these are their friends and neighbors. At the end of the day, Atticus wants his children to know that, despite everything, their community will still remain intact (i.e. you continue to treat them with a friend’s respect, and you remember that they’re part of a larger community that stays whole even if its parts are pulling in different directions). Another example of his empathy teachings is the understanding and respect he has towards Mrs.Dubose even though she says cruel things about him. Atticus is always positive towards Mrs.Dubose, even when Mrs. Dubose said, “Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for” (102). “She’s an old lady and she’s ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad” (100). These lines are being spoken by Atticus to his son Jem. Atticus knows Mrs. Dubose has been raised differently than they have. Atticus gives them things to consider before judging Mrs. Dubose negatively. Another example I’d like to point out is that Atticus was being a good example to his kids by showing empathy towards a mean and unruly man like Bob Ewell. When Bob Ewell spit in his face, Atticus simply walked away and took it. He tells Jem: “Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take” (218). Atticus showed empathy towards Bob Ewell, and his kids. Moreover, Atticus showed a lot of strength, courage and dignity by saying, “What on Earth could Ewell do to me, sister” (218). This quote shows that he resists any sort of retaliation he could have made. He taught his son to care for others, no matter how filthy their sins are. The last quote that shows Atticus’ empathy is a discussion between Atticus and Scout in chapter 31, “…when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . .” His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” These words, from Chapter 31, conclude the novel. As Scout falls asleep, she is telling Atticus about the events of The Gray Ghost, a book in which one of the characters is wrongly accused of committing a crime and is pursued. When he is finally caught, however, his innocence is revealed. As Scout sleepily explains the story to Atticus, saying that the character was “real nice” when “they finally saw him,” Atticus gently notes the truth of that observation. In this way, Lee closes the book with a subtle reminder of the themes of innocence, accusation, and threat that have run throughout it, putting them to rest by again illustrating the wise moral outlook of Atticus: if one lives with sympathy and understanding, then it is possible to retain faith in humanity despite its capacity for evil—to believe that most people are “real nice.” Additionally, this passage emphasizes Atticus’s strong, loving role as a parent to Scout and Jem—he tucks Scout in, then goes to sit by Jem’s bedside all night long. Through Atticus’s strength, the tension and danger of the previous chapters are resolved, and the book ends on a note of security and peace.
Aunt Alexandra, sister of Atticus and aunt of Scout and Jem, shows empathy in this novel. For instance, she had empathy for Jem. She showed empathy for Jem when he broke his arm from falling and she cared for him and saw how and why he got hurt. Also, she showed empathy for Atticus. When Atticus lost the Tom Robinson case, Aunt Alexandra felt bad for him and understood how he tried very hard to try winning the case. “It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him to pieces” (236). This quote explains how Aunt Alexandra felt towards Atticus when he lost the case. She also said that Atticus wants “this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re too afraid to do themselves—it might lose ’em a nickel. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re—” (236). Miss Maudie cut her off, supposedly because she was talking to loud because Aunt Alexandra cared so much on what Atticus does for Maycomb.
The main takeaway, ironically enough, is to not judge a book by it’s cover; or in this case, to not judge a person by their skin. It seems like we haven’t learned from our mistakes, even though Harper Lee literally spelled them out for us. So, why should we start to care about “To Kill a Mockingbird” now? In the midst of police shootings, terrorism, and all manner of injustices, it’s important to remember what Atticus Finch told Scout on the porch swing, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (30). This lesson doesn’t just apply to understanding our fellow peers, but can also serve to trigger your mind to think in a much grander and philosophical scale. It seems that a lot of us have forgotten about being empathetic towards others; it seems that we continue to commit the sin of killing mockingbirds, the birds that Miss Maudie said do nothing but produce sweet music for our enjoyment. The symbolism behind the mockingbirds is that of innocence and/or all around good intentions. It seems like we are losing too many people as a result of malicious self-interest, just like when Mayella Ewell falsely accused Tom Robinson of rape, and we all know how that ended. It’s much easier to judge someone at face value alone, but it takes work to consider the many possibilities and events that led someone to think, talk or act in a way different from you, just like Boo Radley was so misunderstood by Scout, Jem and Dill. So let us take a page from Atticus Finch’s book (how awesome would it be if he was real and wrote a book?) and re-evaluate how we perceive others and ourselves; we never know what we might learn.