(Re)aquainting Ourselves With Atticus Finch

Gregory-Peck-as-Atticus-Finch

For bookworms across the world the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman posed an insurmountable problem for fans of the author’s iconic work To Kill a Mockingbird. The problem presented, as it were, was the new novel’s revelation that Atticus Finch – father of Scout and Jem, protector of the innocent and all round good guy – actually harbours racist views regarding African American people. The same Atticus Finch who had been held up as the epitome of a gentleman – a man who professed and embodied nothing but respect, honour and virtue – is and always was a deeply prejudiced human being. Note here how I am referring to Finch as if he were a living person and not a fictional character existing only through the written word. Such is the character’s stature that since the publication of Lee’s novel in 1960, I have no doubt that many readers will have thought of Atticus as a real human being or at least regarded him as a major influence or role model in their lives, assisted in no small part by the novel’s frequent inclusion in English Literature lessons across the globe.

55 years later and the illusion is shattered. Atticus is no longer a role model but an ageing bigot who see’s no harm in attending a semi-Klan type group meeting known as the Citizen’s Council and espousing views such as the idea that African Americans are a ‘backwards people’. Echoing Jean Louise’s own experience in the novel, Go Set A Watchman marks the metaphorical death of Atticus Finch for the reader and our disillusionment with him as a supposedly infallible father figure. Both Jean Louise and the reader’s innocence have been lost for good. To quote from the book itself:

“The one human being [Jean Louise] had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever 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.”

For those who have read and lived with Mockingbird for more than fifty years, this will undoubtedly be a shock. Alongside the controversies and mysteries surrounding the publication of the novel itself, Watchman‘s revelation about Atticus’s true nature was a prime selling point. For myself, however, the veritable breakdown of pop culture in reaction to Go Set A Watchman provided the backdrop to my very first reading of To Kill A Mockingbird, which I then followed with Go Set A Watchman and then finally, a viewing of the 1962 adaptation of Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck. Having read the various reviews, headlines and opinion pieces about Watchman in the wake of its publication, my first trip to Maycomb County was coloured by the knowledge of Atticus’s inevitable fall from grace.

However, this ‘fall from grace’ suggests that Atticus became a racist or that the Atticus of Mockingbird is in some way different to the Atticus of Watchman. The review of Watchman published in The New Yorker (‘Sweet Home Alabama‘) dismantles this idea well, countering the notion that Atticus ‘transforms’ as ludicrous and that such a reading misses the point that Watchman sets out to demonstrate entirely. Effectively, it is argued, Atticus held these views the whole time.

Returning to Mockingbird we can see how Atticus’s prejudices would not necessarily have swayed him from taking on the case of Tom Robinson. His first allegiance is to the Law, which he will uphold regardless of who he is charged with protecting. Secondly, as Watchman outlines, he believes that people like Tom Robinson are incapable of protecting themselves because of their race. His accepting of Robinson’s case could be explained by his need to assert power and authority over the very people he deems to be inferior. Watchman, then, allows for Mockingbird to be read on very different terms.

Consequently, I, like many other readers out there, have to count myself amongst the first generation of Mockingbird readers in a post-Watchman world, unable to experience or comprehend the 1960 novel or 1962 film without the knowledge of its successor and the ramifications it presents. More than whilst reading the novel, I caught myself projecting this knowledge and awareness of Watchman onto the film adaptation more and more frequently. Instead of the interiority and insight of the novel’s detailed first-person narration as experienced by Jean Louise, we are left with the nuance and subtlety of visual gestures and performance which can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways.

Suddenly with hindsight Atticus’s thoughtful consideration before choosing to accept the Robinson case becomes imbued with the sense that his indecision may be due to the defendant’s race rather than what he himself stands to lose. Likewise in the courtroom scene his behaviour around Robinson now appears awkward, less hospitable or comforting towards the defendant than we would like him to be. Later in this scene, Atticus’s refusal to look up towards the balcony seats in the courtroom as he walks out may not be because of the embarrassment of his failure, but him adhering to the societal rules and practices of segregation.

Of course, such a motive for his performance wouldn’t have occurred to either Peck and or the director back in 1962, and these instances are minor points to note at best – the analytical excavation of something which isn’t really there. However, even if the original intent of such scenes are fundamentally clear, Go Set A Watchman has enabled the possibility of these parallel secondary readings by retroactively projecting onto the narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird the clues of a secret history. We can no longer feel the same adoration for Atticus we may have once felt, knowing what we do now. Instead, we may find ourselves questioning his motives, movements and words with far more scrutiny than the character has ever experienced before. The idea that Atticus behaves the same way ‘on the streets as he does at home’ no longer holds any weight. It is interesting to see how in this case the language and meaning of cinema can be altered and take on new meanings so long after the fact.

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