Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Fall of Atticus Finch

There are perhaps only a few more beloved literary characters than Atticus Finch, lawyer and the father of protagonist Scout Finch in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Many attorneys were inspired to pursue careers in law because of Atticus Finch. Reportedly people even named their children "Atticus" in his honour (although I don't know anyone who did). In 2010 Book Magazine named Atticus Finch the seventh best fictional character in 20th Century fiction in their list "The 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900".  Immortalised in the film version by Gregory Peck, in the American Film Institute's 2003 list "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains", Atticus Finch was voted the top hero in cinema, beating out both Rick Blaine of Casablanca and Will Kane of High Noon. Very few fictional characters have ever been as admired as Atticus Finch.

Unfortunately, it seems many readers' fond memories of Atticus Finch may soon be marred forever. Before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote the novel Go Set a Watchman. It was Harper Lee's editor, impressed by the flashbacks to Jean Louise "Scout" Finch's past, who suggested that she instead write a novel set during Scout's childhood and told from Scout's point of view. Go Set a Watchman was then put aside as Harper Lee went to work on what became To Kill a Mockingbird. Eventually the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman would be rediscovered. It is set to be published this coming Tuesday, July 14 2015.

Go Set a Watchman has already seen its share of controversy. Some thought that because of her advanced age Harper Lee had been taken advantage of, and the Alabama authorities even investigated to see if she had been the victim of elder abuse. Ultimately, they concluded that she had not. That would hardly be the last controversy sparked by the publication of Go Set a Watchman, as yet another, perhaps even bigger one emerged on Friday with Michiko Kakutani's advance review of the book in The New York Times.

What Michiko Kakutani revealed in her review sent shock waves through the internet and horrified fans of To Kill a Mockingbird. Quite simply, in Go Set a Watchman Atticus Finch, the once beloved father figure and paragon of tolerance and equality, is a racist. What is more, he is not simply any racist. He is a racist who has attended a Klan meeting and supports segregation. He is a racist who says things like, "The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people" and “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?” To say that fans of To Kill a Mockingbird were shocked would be an understatement. Many expressed their disappointment on Twitter and other social media sites. Some even vowed not to read Go Set a Watchman.

Admittedly the idea of Atticus Finch as a outright racist is a hard pill to swallow. While it is true that Go Set a Watchman is set in the Fifties, about twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is difficult to see how Atticus Finch could have changed so much.  It just doesn't seem possible that a man of integrity who insisted on treating all people with dignity could become an angry bigot who favours segregation and looks on African Americans as being in "...their childhood as a people." Granted To Kill a Mockingbird is told from Scout's point of view and she may have idealised her father as many of us do, but it seems unlikely that she would have glossed over his bigotry had he been openly racist even in the Thirties.

Of course, it must be taken into account that Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. And it must also be taken account that, like most other writers, Harper Lee most likely revised her thoughts on the various characters when she went from writing Go Set a Watchman to writing To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the characters she obviously revised was Atticus Finch, who from Go Set a Watchman appears to have originally been a racist. In To Kill a Mockingbird he became the saint-like figure with whom we are more familiar. Atticus Finch's personality isn't the only thing that changed from Go Set a Watchman. At least one event portrayed in both books did as well. Apparently the famous trial, in which Atticus defended Tom Robinson against a charge of rape, has a completely different outcome in Go Set a Watchman. It must be also be noted that Go Set a Watchman is being published as it was written. Nothing has been changed from its final draft in the Fifties. Perhaps we should not be surprised that it would differ from To Kill a Mockingbird, even when one of those differences is that Atticus Finch is a racist.

Ultimately fans of To Kill a Mockingbird might wish to view the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman as a completely different character from the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. Indeed, given the trial in Go Set a Watchman had a completely different outcome, they might wish to regard Go Set a Watchman as being set in a completely different reality, a mirror universe where Atticus Finch is a racist and segregationist. One has to wonder that Atticus Finch does not look like Gregory Peck with a goatee in that mirror universe as well.....

1 comment:

Carissa Horton said...

I appreciate your rational thoughts regarding this new, or rather old, book by Harper Lee. This wouldn't be the first instance that a set of characters was written in first one book and than in another, alternate reality. Stephen King used this same method in two books, one under his own name and one under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. Same characters, different motives, different outcomes.

Holding with this theory might almost make Go Set a Watchman palatable to readers, especially since the trial ends differently from To Kill a Mockingbird. That's a sure sign of an alternate reality. So thank you for raising that thought in my head before I began to genuinely fear that this new book would completely unravel the good man that is Atticus Finch.