Wednesday, January 27, 2016

My Thoughts on Atticus Finch in GO SET A WATCHMAN

Over the holidays, I read Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN, something I pledged to do last year when the book came out in the midst of controversies and rumors surrounding its release.

The book further confirmed for me Lee's writing abilities. 

Before beginning WATCHMAN, I was uncertain about whether I should read the book as a standalone, a sequel, or a companion novel set in an alternate universe against MOCKINGBIRD's original setting. As I got into the book, my mind chose to lean on the book as a sequel, a continuation of MOCKINGBIRD.

The big twist in WATCHMAN is that Atticus Finch transforms from being MOCKINGBIRD’s progressive to an old man with racist views. According to Internet buzz, this widely publicized spoiler was a deterrent to reading the book for some. I was quite disappointed but not crazy shocked by the spoiler. Sometimes people change their political views over time. This is what I believe happened to Atticus. Not saying this is the conclusion Lee intended to convey, but that's the interpretation I choose. Being aware that real people can have more than one face, it isn't much of a stretch to accept that characters can be inconsistent in fiction too. 

I think the book spoiler might lead people to believe Atticus has become a racist rhetoric spewing ignoramus 24/7. The idea would make him easier to hate. But Lee also portrayed Atticus as an affectionate father to Jean Louise and the caretaker of the orphaned Henry Clinton, even helping to pay for his mother's funeral. So Lee painted a really complicated, flawed character in this new but certainly not improved Atticus that can incite endless reader discussions.

While I dislike the person Atticus has become, I don't consider him the story's main antagonist. For me, the true villain of the story is the deceptively charming community of Maycomb, Alabama. Here, neighbors bake for one another, attend church together, and seem to consider themselves respectable people, in spite of their terribly vile attitudes toward African Americans. I choose to believe Atticus in MOCKINGBIRD did start out as an idealist  but his views simply changed over time because he remained in Maycomb and sadly, allowed the town to seduce him to its way of thinking. Sometimes someone can faithfully live by one set of values but only until another party brainwashes them into assuming another values system.      

Have you read WATCHMAN? Have your political views shifted on any issue since your youth? Have you ever been an insider or outsider of a deceptively charming community? 

12 comments:

Crystal Collier said...

Nope, haven't read it. I didn't enjoy the first one much--not because it isn't beautifully written and all, it's just not my genre. You know how that goes? But we do change over time. I find that people start very open to all kinds of ideas and the older we get, the more set in our ways we become.

Pat Hatt said...

Sometimes a town can sure suck one into its views. Never bothered to read this one though.

John Wiswell said...

The corruption of Atticus sounds like a valid goal. I can see people being disappointed since the first novel operates on simple basics, with him being a good guy who would fight against racism, and what you're laying out requires more critical thinking to appreciate. I haven't read it because of the controversy over whether Lee was actually cognizant of the release, and because there are so many other books that ask for my time. Guantanamo Diary, for instance, felt culturally necessary to read.

S.P. Bowers said...

I haven't read it yet. I'm afraid I was one of the people that was scared away. I wanted to read it, but was just too afraid of how it would affect my understanding of TKAM. And that maybe I would understand that Atticus isn't who we think in that book. Rather just a man trying his best to do his professional job regardless of his own personal viewpoint. You're post relieves my worry a little. It makes me think I can still find a way to enjoy it for what it is and for the writing.

S.P. Bowers said...

John Wiswell, That's one of the reasons I haven't read it either.

Chrys Fey said...

I haven't read this one and I'm not sure if I ever will...

Natalie Aguirre said...

I haven't read this and don't plan to. But I'm glad it got you thinking.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I haven't read it. And yes, a couple of my views changed a bit from youth to adult.

M.K. Louie said...

Haven't read it yet, but wow, now I'm intrigued. I wish the character was developed in terms of WHY his views changed. That would make the story compelling for me. Kind of like how Anakin Skywalker gets seduced by the Dark side and becomes Darth Vader (not that George Lucas did that very well but the concept is compelling). Maybe he got harmed in a way that skewed/tainted his once ideal views... that would have been something valid to consider.

And yes, the pattern I've noticed in my life is that my once-stubborn views are constantly changing (I'd like to think of this process as "growing" lol). I used to be an atheistic conservative but the last 15 years have opened me up to faith and be a bit more liberal in my political views. Funny how that works out.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I have changed. I started out as a political centrist and have moved farther and farther to the left with each passing year.

I've heard that Lee actually wrote GSAW first, and TKAM later. In that sense, many people view GSAW as a draft, and TKAM as the "real" story, the fully realized and more mature novel. I haven't read GSAW myself, so wouldn't venture an opinion on that, but I also think it's entirely possible for the Atticus in both books to be the same character, to be someone who changed for the worse.

Kate Larkindale said...

I haven't read it. The whole idea of its publication has made me so uncomfortable I can't bring myself to.

Cynthia said...

Mike,
Thanks for sharing your Darth Vader example!

In an earlier post I shared here, I too mentioned that I wanted to know why Atticus became this way, hence my interest in WATCHMAN. Though I didn't come across a catalytic event showing how it steered Atticus away from his earlier views, I chose to interpret his involvement with his community as a factor in the transformation.

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