Something that I want you to take away from this video is being able to develop a contention statement that is a complete, solid foundation for your essay. A lot of the time when I ask students what they’re trying to say in a specific section of their essay, they can’t really explain it, they’re just trying to put relevant evidence down. Ideally, it’s worth bearing in mind when you plan that you should be able to follow your logic back to the contention at any given point, even if you’re not that confident with the topic, and even if it wasn’t the topic you’re quite prepared for.
We’ll be looking at this using To Kill A Mockingbird, which is an iconic novel, probably the widest-read novel about racism and racial inequality. The protagonist, Atticus Finch, is also probably the most famous literary hero of the 20th century. The novel takes place in a fictional town, Maycomb, Alabama that is based on the author Harper Lee’s hometown. Part One deals with Jem and Scout Finch’s upbringing, and the moral lessons they pick up from their father about their neighbours. Part Two deals with the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man convicted of rape despite overwhelming evidence that he is innocent. Atticus is in many ways the moral centre of the novel, tying the values and messages from part one into the trial.
The topic we’ll be looking at is:
To Kill A Mockingbird is a story of courage. Discuss.
So ‘courage’ is the key word here, and the way we define it will shape our entire discussion. It generally means bravery and fearlessness, but what kinds of courage are explored in the novel? It could be anything from courage to do the ‘right’ thing, or courage to tell the truth, or courage to treat people with dignity even when you don’t know if they’ll treat you the same way.
For a prompt like this, you start building your contention based on these definitions, and this is handy if you’re better prepared for another theme. Let’s say you’re better prepped to write an essay on discrimination...
You could contend that the novel is indeed about courage, as Atticus not only teaches it to his children but also applies it to his defence of Tom Robinson in the face of structural racism. However, courage is also linked more broadly to empathy, which is explored as a panacea for discrimination. A complete contention like this breaks up your points neatly, but also grounds everything you have to say in an essay that still addresses the question and the idea of courage.
For example, paragraph one would start by looking at the forms of courage he teaches to his children. Part One, the more moralistic and didactic section of the novel ends with the idea that “real courage” isn’t “a man with a gun” but rather “when you know you're licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” The section is characterised by these lessons of “real courage”—while Atticus “One-Shot” Finch downplays his marksmanship, he focuses the children’s moral instruction on characters such as Mrs Dubose, who he admires as courageous for fighting her morphine addiction.
The next paragraph would look at Atticus’ actions and also the trial in a bit more detail, as he embodies this idea that real courage exists outside of physical daring. In the racist milieu of the Deep South at the time, juries rarely “decide in favour of a coloured man over a white man.” Yet, Atticus is determined to defend Tom even at the steep cost of his own personal honour or reputation. Not only does he teach his children about the importance of courage, but he goes on to exemplify those very lessons himself. Courage in this case reflects his commitment to the truth and to defending the innocent—“this boy’s not going till the truth is told.”
However, in the final paragraph we might take a bit of a turn. Atticus, in having the courage to see Tom as an equal, is probably reflecting another very important value in the novel—namely, empathy. Though he admires Mrs. Dubose for her “real courage”, the white camellia he gives to Jem represents the goodness he sees within her despite her discriminatory attitudes. Though Jem struggles to empathise with the “old devil”, Atticus posits that it takes a degree of courage to be the bigger person and see the best in others, rather than repeating cycles of discrimination and prejudice. The idea of empathy as a form of courage is also reflected in what he teaches them about Boo Radley. When Scout is terrified by the idea that he had given her a blanket without her realising, she “nearly threw up”—yet Atticus maintains the importance of empathising with people, “climb[ing] into another man’s shoes and walk[ing] around in it” rather than ostracising them. In other words, he sees empathy as a form of courage in being the first to break social stigmas and overcome the various forms of discrimination that separate us.
Now to touch base again with the take away message. We contended that the novel is about courage because Atticus teaches it to Scout and Jem while also representing it in the trial. We also contended that courage is linked to empathy, another key value that he imparts as it helps to overcome social barriers like discrimination. The aim was to build an essay on a contention that clearly props up the body of the essay itself, even when we were more confident with some other themes, and I think this plan does a pretty good job of covering that.