Atticus Finch and the Quagmire of Character

This post contains SPOILERS to Harper Lee’s new novel, “Go Set a Watchman”

Gregory-Peck-as-Atticus-FinchThe first time I encountered Atticus Finch was in the 8th grade.  It was not in Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” but in its classic film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck in the now iconic role.  I wouldn’t coherently read the novel until sometime later.  After then the character of Atticus Finch, both in the novel and the film, embodied for me everything a man should aspire to be.  A purveyor of human dignity, possessing a humble strength that both enables his patience as his kids grow through shenanigans, adventures, tragedy and heartbreak, healing and friendship, and also endures the onslaught of hate and racism of ignorant townsfolk or rudeness cultivated through years of conditioning.  These character values helped endear Atticus Finch to generations of readers and preserved him as one of literature’s most revered characters.

That legacy is just one of the many reasons the world rejoiced this past winter when it was announced a “lost novel” of Harper Lee’s was to be published in July.  Titled “Go Set a Watchman”, its synopsis centered on an older Jean Louise returning to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father.  Apparently Harper Lee wrote this manuscript initially and the publisher told her to go deeper into the characters’ youthful days; the result was the acclaimed “To Kill a Mockingbird”.  When the old manuscript was recently recovered, it was published as something of a sequel.  “Go Set a Watchman” was finally released yesterday morning, July 14.  I did not purchase it, but my sister did.  She bought it first thing this morning, went out to the country, and read the entire book beside a river.  I was working on my own tasks elsewhere, but at one point my eye caught a few reviews.  What it said rippled a rattling through my ribcage.  It said the Atticus Finch character is completely different than the one we’ve loved for the past fifty years.  My sister later confirmed this troublesome truth: Atticus Finch is a racist!

This kind of threw off my rhythm for the rest of the day, much of which I spent pondering this quagmire.  Yesterday morning, as in the past fifty years, we lived in a world where Atticus Finch humbly but heroically taught us how to be human.  Now we live in a world where Atticus Finch can be compared to Hitler (an actual comment in the novel, apparently).  My sister commented how she wishes she could go back in time and tell the publisher to leave this recovered manuscript in the vault. I’m sure many of us will have similar emotional reactions.  But there is no going back; so how do we go forward?

The solution that occurs to me is the only one I feel we have—let our “Mockingbird” Atticus and the “Watchman” Atticus simply be what they actually are: characters.  Story characters have one immutable function—they are the possibility.  They show us what could be; they suggest who we could be. Story characters give shape to living characters; they inform our values. Whether a character carries himself with quiet dignity, defends the helpless, and teaches us how to be human or displays dimensions rooted in the darkest versions of themselves, they are personifications of the possibilities for us all.  With the release and revelations of “Go Set a Watchman”, readers can be challenged to ponder what version of themselves they will devote themselves to becoming.

We now understand that Harper Lee herself has always carried these two versions of Atticus Finch inside her; at some point, though, she decided to reach for the version that embodied the best of what humanity could be.  We now get to make that same choice.  The editing of a character does not edit ours; it does not redefine our values.  It may, in fact, help us to see what our values actually are.  And like treasures in a tree, that’s worth discovering.



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