Literary Review

Growing up with Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in a scene from the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird".  

It was during a long train journey when I was 16 that I read To Kill a Mockingbird Bird. I read it several times after, and by the time I reached college where the classic was part of my syllabus, I knew the plot like the back of my hand. My roommate in college shared my love; in fact, she was so obsessed with the book that I fondly called her Boo after Boo Radley, the reclusive character who remains shrouded in mystery. In short, we were both Harper Lee crazies and we were both Atticus’ daughter Scout: adoring of the moralistic Atticus, and hopeful that such characters exist in modern-day America where black Americans continue to fight the long shadow of racism.

Like us, for young people across the world, Atticus from Maycomb village was an idol: a kind man, a doting father, a virtuous lawyer. When young Scout and Jem discover in their innocent world blatant prejudice, segregation and racism, Atticus makes them proud by defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Atticus shot to dizzying heights of fame — even more when his character was played by a dashing Gregory Peck in the film version in 1962 — not just because he was a symbol of hope in Maycomb but because his views seem ahead of the times even now. Atticus was a bona fide role model, a true hero.

Which brings us to the question: what makes for a hero? For me, a hero is one who displays courage during testing times, is noble, and of good character. This, until I became a cynical adult and realised that like Atticus, all heroes, however seemingly perfect, stumble at some point. Get too close to them and you will discover a stained character, insecurities and compromised principles.

Heroes are not set in stone; they can fall. And what a fall it is for Atticus in Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. His character shatters our hope in justice. Like Scout, referred to unfamiliarly as Jean Louise in this book, we are also shocked when we find her anti-racist father sitting as a mute spectator at hate speeches, far removed from the one who preached “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” in To Kill a Mockingbird. A stunned Jean Louise says it leaves her not merely “wary” when Atticus “fails her” but it leaves her “with absolutely nothing”. Atticus’ aphorism on equal rights now comes with caveats: Negroes are backward people, he tells his daughter. “Let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world,” he asks.

The yawning gap between “our” world and “theirs” is striking in Go Set a Watchman — much like the gap between who children believe their heroes are and who they turn out to be. Heroes in childhood have no shades of grey. They are spotless; they are Atticus.

I read Go Set a Watchman with a great deal of caution. Having read articles that spoke about Atticus’ bigoted views, I thought I was prepared to be dismayed. But the 16-year-old idealist in me was nevertheless shattered to find a favourite character not evolving in his views, but regressing. The old Atticus is necessary in our lives because he is a symbol of hope for a population that is discriminated against, one that continues to be brutally attacked and killed in a country that refuses to accept that it is racist.

But there are many fallen Atticus’ out there — circumstances change them — and this is a sad reality. For me and several others, Atticus has had a great fall. However hard all the book’s reviewers and all of Lee’s characters try, they cannot ever put Atticus together again.

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