On Atticus: an Essay on the Evolution of a Beloved Character
On Atticus’ Evolution of Opinion, with Information from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, and the New Yorker article, "The Courthouse Ring"
Anyone familiar with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and its chronological successor, Go Set a Watchman, knows that they portray very different versions of one of American literature’s most iconic characters: Atticus Finch. The Atticus we know and love from To Kill a Mockingbird is kind, patient, and who has set an example in fairness and respect for millions of people all over america and the world.
However, the Atticus we return to has aged just about as well as the rest of Maycomb, and is bitter, racist, and as painfully human as his younger self is genial and almost deity-like. But how could our beloved Atticus become this way? The majority of evidence points to the fact that it was out of a combination of necessity and the set-in-stone stoic variety of naivety that one finds with old age.
Recently, I read an article published in the New Yorker, which, despite being written before Go Set a Watchman was released, still applies. This article compares Atticus to 1950s Alabama governor Jim Folsom Sr who, in paragraph six of the article, is described as “Not a civil rights activist [but]…gradual and paternalistic” in his policies and ideologies. It says that Folsom cared little about race, treating everyone with respect and ensuring similar facilities for both african americans and whites, yet not upsetting his white voters by pushing for full equality.
However, as the civil rights movement gained national attention in the 1960s, Folsom would leave office and be followed by a series of governors on the far ends of the political spectrum in a climate that could not sustain moderates. It can be argued that this applies to Atticus as well. Atticus is pushed to a racist and bigoted opinion by a climate that cannot tolerate what I will refer to as “dignity to the lesser”, his attitude towards Blacks in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is seen as treating everyone with respect in To Kill a Mockingbird, but joins a white supremacist group in Go Set a Watchman because he prefers to compromise his values and beliefs in favor of his white peers.
However, political necessity is simply not sufficient for Atticus’ fall from grace. Perhaps Atticus is just getting old, as are the eyes that Scout views him with. Perhaps an aging and physically deteriorating Atticus has simply become entrenched in the views from his post-reconstruction upbringing and can no longer sustain the character of a perfect hero for a daughter who has now seen the world for herself.
One can see, in fact, that throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Blacks are, to Atticus, inferior and he prides himself in bringing “dignity to the lesser”. Throughout the whole book Atticus sits complacently as there is a clear double standard. For instance, while his own clients, the Robinsons, are being harassed and threatened, he stands to protect a shy man’s privacy in concealing Boo Radley’s heroism. Atticus will protect an innocent man from murder, and even as he ages he would never don a white hood, but there has always been a divide as clear as the difference in color for him between races.
Now, perhaps this theory is completely incorrect. Perhaps, Atticus truly has changed as much as Scout has. Perhaps the pamphlets portraying caricatures of African Americans with massive red lips and demeaning accents have gotten to him in the twenty years between books. But he says, when talking to Scout about Mrs. Dubose in To Kill a Mockingbird, that all men are just alike and that the rest of the town just can’t see that. So how is that same man attending meetings with white supremacists?
It is one of the most difficult questions to answer, and other than literary necessities, there are few answers, but despite him being a more naïve, optimistic, younger man in To Kill a Mockingbird, it must be said that pamphlets cannot change men, and that this is a man who has become who he is in the Go Set a Watchman not because of writings and pamphlets and hateful old men, but from things that one can see from the very beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird.