On Atticus: an Essay on the Evolution of a Beloved Character

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Feb 18, 2016
by: Roan522
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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.

Comments

Although I am shocked about

eric_yu2001's picture
Submitted by eric_yu2001 on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:05.

Although I am shocked about this news, I have to agree with everything you said. Indeed, the coming of age is a very effective process, and many mysteries lead up to how Atticus transformed from his previous state. I believe that Atticus's change is because he is getting older, from the countless times he has been insulted on and the times of African crime, Atticus is getting tired and bored of standing up just by himself. Along with the increase of sourness in his mood, it is an appropriate time to become what he is in Go Set a Watchman.

Thank you for responding

Submitted by Roan522 on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:20.

I do agree that perhaps Atticus is simply trying not to be ostracised by the white community. However, I feel that perhaps a more present motif in GSAM is Scout aging into a young woman, but, as Ms. Reed loves to say, "no two people ever read the same book,".

Although I am shocked about

eric_yu2001's picture
Submitted by eric_yu2001 on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:05.

Although I am shocked about this news, I have to agree with everything you said. Indeed, the coming of age is a very effective process, and many mysteries lead up to how Atticus transformed from his previous state. I believe that Atticus's change is because he is getting older, from the countless times he has been insulted on and the times of African crime, Atticus is getting tired and bored of standing up just by himself. Along with the increase of sourness in his mood, it is an appropriate time to become what he is in Go Set a Watchman.

About the Article

Submitted by The Movie Destroyer on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:06.

It's great that you chose a character in the book instead of a "motif" topic that most of us did. You got great and debatable examples. And what I like the most is that you used the book Go Set a Watchman. But your last paragraph didn't include your topic, or Atticus.

I like the way you analysed

onixn's picture
Submitted by onixn on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:15.

I like the way you analysed him, although it's disappointing that Atticus turns out that way; he was my favorite character in TKAM. I kind of don't want to read GSAW now.

I find it kind of sad that

Submitted by allyschloss on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:28.

I find it kind of sad that the man who I considered ahead of his time based on how he treated the race being persecuted at the time, is now being the one to persecute others. How could someone change that much in 20 years it just makes no sense. I have never read Go Set A Watchman, but how you explain that Atticus changes, it tempts me to not want to read it and ruin my view of this great man.

It is a shame

Submitted by Roan522 on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:48.

It is a real shame that Atticus falls the way he does, as he was a great man, and in saying what you do you voice the feelings of many readers all over the world.

I was very intrigued

Submitted by SKadrofske on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:31.

I was very intrigued by by your theory as to why Atticus is so much different in Go Set a Watchman than To Kill a Mockingbird. People believe that Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe how Atticus is in Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee's original vision for him.

Very interesting, I've never

Submitted by Bryan L. on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:33.

Very interesting, I've never thought about Atticus believing that he is superior to blacks. He always treats people with respect, so I just can't see him in that light.

It's quite a shock isn't it?

Submitted by Roan522 on Fri, 2016-02-19 11:49.

It is hard to stomach that he is the way he is and becomes the way he does.