Was Harper Lee right to tarnish Saint Atticus?

September 10, 2015



Isn’t life disappointing?

So concludes Tokyo Story, one of the great tales of Japanese cinema.

Yet, upon the release of Harper Lee’s second novel, this same quote could be considered an unofficial mantra for a large group of social media users dismayed by the developments of Go Set a Watchman.

When The New York Times broke a review embargo, fans of To Kill a Mockingbird were shocked and betrayed at the revelation that Atticus Finch, formerly a bastion of virtue and dignity, may not be the perfect hero they hoped and wished for.

Previously indefatigable, principled and courageous beyond measure, Finch, in Lee’s new publication, seemed a world away from the man who would do the right thing, no matter the consequences. The man who stood up against a town of bigots, who fought with all his strength to clear the name of the wrongly accused Tom Robinson, was no more. Atticus Finch, we were told, had become a racist old man.

Fifty five years after the release of To Kill a Mockingbird, half a century in which Atticus Finch grew into an icon of moral righteousness, the publication of Go Set a Watchman has asked us to revise all we know, everything we believed in. Yet, it must be asked, is this necessarily a bad thing? Have we really been betrayed or has Harper Lee once again helped us expand our minds with her lucid storytelling?

The events of Go Set a Watchman take place twenty years after the events of Mockingbird; Scout, or Jean Louise as she now goes by, is a twenty six year old woman who has long since left Maycomb for the bright lights of New York. On her annual return to her hometown, Scout finds herself disenchanted by a place she had previously considered “the world”. Now more familiar with the liberalism of the North, her former home in Alabama appears to be a hotbed of racism and backwards values.

Most disappointingly of all in Scout’s eyes, rather than stand up against this injustice, Atticus Finch seems not only resigned but positively accepting of the racism ripe in Maycomb. ‘The one human she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her,’ Lee writes, ‘the only man she had every known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”’

Yet, for all the pre-release hyperbole which suggests that Atticus Finch had suddenly become a cantankerous member of the Ku Klux Klan, it must be noted that Harper Lee, as to be expected, has written something much more subtle and profound than a straight up heel turn for one of literature’s most loved characters.

In many ways, Go Set a Watchman acts as both a companion piece to both To Kill a Mockingbird and, unexpectedly, the film which gave this article its opening quote – Tokyo Story. Whilst the latter is a tale in which parents become gradually disillusioned by the choices their children make, Watchman provides an alternative perspective; that of a child who no longer understands the people who raised her.

Famously, To Kill a Mockingbird is a fable written from the first person perspective of a six-year old girl looking on as she witnesses her father tackle the injustices of the world. From such a place, it is impossible to not understand Atticus Finch as a man of towering virtue – our only access to the character is through the eyes of a hero-worshipping child. Perhaps, over the years, we’ve all had the wrong handle on the character – maybe he’s always been flawed or, at least, not as saintly as one would assume from the only source material available to us.

Go Set a Watchman is a very different proposition. No longer is Atticus Finch portrayed as the moral centre of the universe – has he always held racist views, clouded by pragmatism? Has he become bitter as he aged? Or, are we finally seeing the true Atticus as told to us through a third person narrative perspective shorn of all prejudice and bias? Perhaps it is a combination of the three.

The important thing here, however, is not so much the journey of Atticus but that of Scout, of Jean Louise. This is the coming-of-age tale of a young woman who comes to understand that perhaps the moral certainties she has took for granted her whole life may not be as certain as one would assume. She has forgotten one of the most important pieces of advice Atticus had ever given her: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’ This applies equally to wounded outsiders like Boo Radley and Tom Robinson as it does to those who don’t share our politics.

Throughout her life, Jean Louise had never taken the time to climb inside the skin of her father. Go Set a Watchman is the book which puts this right – after a lifetime of liberalism, of refusing to listen to values which do not match her own, the erstwhile Scout is confronted with a challenge of truly putting Atticus’ words into action. Is it possible to fight racism or small-mindedness without empathy for their views? Is it truly possible for Scout to understand her father without seeing him from an idealised perspective?

Go Set a Watchman puts us in Scout’s skin in a manner which is almost unbearable. Yes, we may feel betrayed with Atticus when we first learn his views run contrary to those we expected of him. Yet, from such a position, we’re forced to ask ourselves – how can such a good man hold such ideas? We’re forced into asking ourselves questions we may feel uncomfortable with – our minds grow at the same rate our perception of Atticus grows.

By the end of Harper Lee’s book, Atticus Finch may no longer be a saint, a hero of pure virtue, but he is something much more than this. He is a man of contradiction, but a man who still challenges us all and makes us confront hypocrisy, judgmentalism and bigotry wherever we find it – even in ourselves. Harper Lee has neither betrayed us or the character of Atticus Finch but, rather, has given us one more gift; a fragile prayer for empathy and humility.





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