Comprehensive Examination in English – Session Two – June 2002

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Part B


J.F. Clarke once wrote, “The bravest of individuals is the one who obeys his or her conscience.” Bravery and courage take many forms, though the conventional perception of these qualities involves a lack of fear in the face of physical danger, or the willingness to confront such danger without regard for one’s own life. But need a person’s life or physical well-being be at stake in order for that person to be considered brave? Clarke doesn’t seem to think so. A person’s conscience, the ability to discern right from wrong and to act upon that, to do what is right, what is virtuous, even in the face of intellectual or emotional opposition, with or without the real or implicit threat of bodily harm, is what truly defines a brave individual. Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and the play Twelve Angry Men, adapted from the television program by Reginald Rose, both reveal that a man’s conscience, his willingness to obey that conscience and do what is right despite the consequences, is what makes him brave.

To Kill a Mockingbird is something of a fictional memoir, narrated by the main character, Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, as an adult remembering the crucial years of her childhood. Prominent among her memories is that of her widowed father, Atticus, who is characterized in the novel as a true paragon of Aristotelian virtue; unwaveringly honest, trustworthy, level-headed, reasonable, and certainly brave; a man who always, invariably, does what he believes is right and acts according to those beliefs, and passes those virtues on to Scout and her older brother Jeremy (“Jem”). Though it may be a product of the adult Scout’s somewhat idealized memory of him, Atticus seems almost impossibly virtuous; he possesses no traditionally negative characteristics whatsoever, which is unusual for any literary character, let alone one so prominent in an individual work. In one main, central storyline that pervades the novel’s generally episodic structure, he defends a young black man against trumped-up rape charges, knowing that despite his client’s obvious innocence, he will lose the case in the predominantly white racist South of the 1930’s. It is revealed in the novel that Atticus volunteered for this case, knowing not only that he would lose, but also that he and his children would become the targets of racists and bigots in their small southern town. One person who “targets” them is Mrs. Dubose, a seemingly vicious, mean-spirited, delirious old woman who spouts insults and racial epithets at the Finches, even the children, every time they pass her house. The impulsive pre-adolescent Jem retaliates by attacking the woman’s garden, and Atticus punishes the boy by requiring him to spend time with Mrs. Dubose, reading to her, helping her around the house and generally absorbing her relentless verbal abuse. When she dies, Atticus reveals to Jem that she had been battling a morphine addiction, her behavior was a result of her withdrawal symptoms, and that in the end, she overcame and defeated the addiction despite the constant pain and struggle it caused her. Atticus sought to teach his son that true bravery is not a man with a gun; Jem had seen Atticus shoot a rabid dog earlier in the story, and Atticus wanted to make sure Jem realized, much as Clarke suggested, what bravery truly meant.

Characterization takes on even greater importance in Twelve Angry Men, a drama about not only the virtues and pitfalls of the jury system, but about group dynamics, character interaction, prejudice, and of course, conscience. The twelve jurors, none of whom are named in the play, all have distinctly different personalities, backgrounds, ideas and ideals with regard not only to the particular defendant whose fate they must decide, but to the jury system and judicial process, their responsibilities as jurors, and the meaning of such legal principles as reasonable doubt and burden of proof. The play’s two most prominent characters are Juror Eight, who is portrayed as a thoughtful, reasonable, enlightened, patient man who is determined to do what is right regardless of what that might be, and Juror Three, an angry, hostile, somewhat bigoted, emotionally scarred bully of a man whose fierce, single-minded determination to convict the defendant overrides any and all other considerations and betrays his innate cowardice. At the start of deliberations, Juror Eight is the sole dissenter as the jury votes 11-1 to convict; he dissents only because he feels they ought to at least discuss the matter before condemning the defendant to a death sentence, and as a result is derided by some of the other jurors, particularly Three, Seven (impatient to leave because he has theatre tickets for that night) and Ten (an angry bigot who sees the defendant only as a poor slum kid of unspecified ethnicity), but he maintains his ground, even offering to change his vote if, after some discussion, the other eleven still find the boy guilty.  “It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone,” says Juror Nine, an old man worn down and defeated by life, as he rewards Eight’s courage by becoming the first to change his vote. Juror Eight’s loyalty to his own conscience pays off in the end as the boy is ultimately acquitted, but not before Juror Three’s cowardice is similarly revealed. Much as Eight stood alone at the beginning, Three stands alone at the end, and in a neat bit of dramatic symmetry, is told, “It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone.” This line here carries with it a bit of irony, however, as Three’s solitary stance is not the result of any real conviction, conscience or integrity on his part, unlike that of Eight, who in the end turned out to be the only juror never to change his vote. Whether due to a lack of courage to stand alone, a realization of the vacuity of his position, a genuine acknowledgement of the correctness of the not-guilty verdict, or simply pressure from the other jurors, Three chooses not to stand alone and changes his vote to not guilty to end the play. Ultimately, though, it was Eight’s brave adherence to his own conscience that saved the defendant from a wrongful conviction.

In times such as these, when bravery is often measured by a person’s willingness and ability to either inflict or endure physical harm, we must turn to literature to be reminded that bravery exists in the soul, not the body. A man doesn’t have to rush toward burning office towers or charge into enemy fire in the deserts of Iraq to be brave. Were the hijackers who flew the jetliners into the World Trade Center brave? They probably thought they were, others may still think they were, but according to Clarke, they were not; neither brave enough to realize that what they were doing was profoundly wrong, nor to stop themselves from doing it. Atticus Finch and Juror Eight showed, by obeying their own conscience above the beliefs and objections of others, that they were truly brave and admirable men.