Recently, I finished Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman. While there are a plethora of issues surrounding the quality of the book and the mystery surrounding its publication, I wanted to focus on a narrow issue: the characterization of Atticus Finch. What can we learn, as writers and readers, from the controversy surrounding this so-called change in his characterization?
Some spoilers within, but probably nothing worse than you’ve read elsewhere.
As a preliminary matter, I like To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t love it. I’m not a lawyer because Atticus Finch inspired me and made me believe in equal justice. I think part of this is because I was too young when I read the novel to really appreciate it. I was curious to see how I would enjoy the sequel (though it was reportedly written before Mockingbird by Ms. Lee) before I heard about the uproar regarding Atticus’s character. If you’re not aware, in short, people are upset because in Watchman, Atticus is quite adamantly a racist. There’s little indication of the great hero for justice with whom people fell in love while reading Mockingbird. Readers were appalled and couldn’t believe that Ms. Lee would assassinate Atticus’s character like that.
On the one hand, maybe it’s not character assassination: some articles have argued that Atticus was always racist (See The New Republic and Jezebel). Further, Mockingbird is told from Scout’s six year old, first-person perspective. She worships her father, and through her narration, we learn to worship him as well. But Scout isn’t an unbiased narrator. She’s a child who loves her father. In contrast, Watchman is told from a third person perspective, though it still focuses on Scout, now going by her given name of Jean Louise. Jean Louise is now an adult and has the ability to view her father how he truly is.
This teaches us a very important lesson about writing. Your narrator matters. Had Mockingbird been told from a third-person perspective, or from the first-person perspective of another character, would the reader have fallen in love with Atticus as much? Or would the readers have had a clearer view of his personality from the beginning?
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that this is a change in Atticus’s character – that Ms. Lee drastically changed this beloved character’s heart. In some ways, this is realistic. People change. Twenty years have passed between Mockingbird and Watchman, and perhaps it’s unrealistic to think even someone as idealistic as we want Atticus to be would stay that way forever.
But finally, and maybe most importantly, I don’t necessarily believe that Ms. Lee owed it to her readers to keep Atticus the same. It’s sad for some readers, but without Jean Louise realizing her father’s true personality, there is no conflict to the story. The entire novel is essentially a coming of age tale where Jean Louise begins to see her father, and the world, for what they really are. Further, as much as readers love Atticus and feel an ownership over him, he’s ultimately Ms. Lee’s character. We never like it when our favorite characters do something out of the ordinary or act in a way in which we believe is contrary to their personality. But we aren’t the writers in these cases. The writer has reasons and motivations beyond what we, as readers, can understand.
Now – if you are still an active writer, especially one with a small following, I wouldn’t recommend tearing down the moral compass of your stories. As evidenced by the drama surrounding Watchman, it’s easy to make your readers mad by the way you treat your characters. But Harper Lee is Harper Lee – she’s the author of one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved books in American history. She can pretty much do what she wants (presuming she wanted to do this, but that is a conversation for another time). It certainly wasn’t a popular decision, but maybe she felt it was the best decision for her narrative.
I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve read Watchman. Was Atticus always a racist? Did Harper Lee screw over her readers by presenting Atticus this way? What exactly do writers owe their readers?