Warning: This post contains spoilers!
Following the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman in 2015, many readers decried the new book, stating that it tarnished their view of Atticus Finch as a hero and an effective community leader. Many people called out Atticus’s deep racism and stated that this completely changed how they read Lee’s first published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
What some don’t realize is that Go Set a Watchman was written first and that Lee, after submitting it to a publisher, was told that it could not be published and that she should write a coming of age novel set in the same town with many of the same characters. From this suggestion came To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been taught in high school for decades and is (in some minds) the quintessential American story. When Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, she was thinking about Go Set a Watchman - she already knew where her characters ended up and this was a way to look at how they got to that point.
In my mind, the ending of Go Set a Watchman was something that we needed - and something that makes Atticus Finch a more complex and interesting character and makes Lee’s tales come to life more. Here are the reasons I believe this:
- Child’s point of view - In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout narrates a tale of her father’s heroism. In all the years that people have been reading this tale, it’s interesting that no one seemed to count Scout as an unreliable narrator. It took a sequel for the truth to come out - Scout is a child with biases and a lack of understanding about many grown-up things. Readers are limited to seeing Scout’s point of view and her thoughts - and Scout doesn’t see everything and doesn’t understand everything around her. Scout spends her childhood putting her father on a pedestal - and this becomes more obvious in Go Set a Watchman. Jean Louise (the grown-up version of Scout) is so uncomfortable disagreeing with her father and seeing any flaw in him - it takes time for her to come to terms with the fact that her father is old fashioned and a product of his times and that he doesn’t fit her ideas of what he should be. For me, this is when Scout truly grew up - when she was able to see her father as a flawed being and still love and accept him. Scout’s difficulty with this makes her (and Atticus) far more human than they would be otherwise. This also speaks to Lee’s storytelling ability that Scout was shielded from this viewpoint for so many years - as a real child probably would be.
- Flawed=fascinating - Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, we’re led to believe that Atticus Finch is a significant figure in the community and that he’s the most moral, strongest, and most wonderful man in town. Now, we see Atticus in a different light - and that changes everything and offers a whole new level of understanding about our hero. While he’s a character who’s been closely examined and analyzed for decades, this new information completely changes our perspective of him and offers a new angle to see him from. I’m sure we’ll have many more decades of analyzing Atticus and seeing how the two books work together to give us a fuller picture of the man.
- More realistic - All throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, it seemed like Atticus was a little too good to be true. And it turns out he was. Once we learn about Atticus’s flaw, things make a little more sense - a man who was born and raised in the south would probably hold the same viewpoints that Atticus does - his far more progressive viewpoints as he defends Tom Robinson are wonderful from our modern perspective, but must have been somewhat difficult to swallow when To Kill a Mockingbird was first published.
- More relatable - For me, this is a big deal. While Atticus is definitely a more relatable character for being flawed, his relationship with his daughter becomes so much more realistic. How many people can say that they love their parents without any reservations or difficulty or hesitations or disagreements? I argue that very few people have straightforward relationships with their parents - often the relationship is more “I love my parents, but…” or “My mom is wonderful, though I wish she’d _____ less” or “My dad and I don’t see eye to eye about _____, but we make it work”. For me, Jean Louise’s relationship with her father is now quite a bit more relatable and understandable.
If you’re still struggling to understand why Harper Lee chose to characterize Atticus Finch like she did, this article may shed some light on the reasons for the differences between the two novels. Also, Lee’s own relationship with her father was changing as she moved from Go Set a Watchman to To Kill a Mockingbird and that may have contributed to the change in her writing - read more about that here.
What do you think about Atticus Finch’s depiction in each book? Do you think this new information changes Atticus completely?