Atticus Finch Revisited

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_courtHarper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has an undeniably odd publication history. Ms. Lee wrote the novel in the 1950s, well before she wrote and published her beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. When she finally agreed to publish Go Set a Watchman in 2015, it registered on critics and readers as a sequel of sorts for To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman involves the moving rebuilding of a parent-child relationship after the child has lost respect for the parent, and this account deserves contemplation and reflection. However, the novel as a whole is only mediocre. Furthermore, many readers will be shocked and disappointed by the novel’s suggestion that Atticus Finch is not the heroic man they thought he was.

In particular, Finch is hardly a staunch defender of civil rights for the people he calls “Negroes.” He tells his daughter Jean Louise, who was known as Scout as a young girl, “Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” He also reveals he is taking the case of an African American defendant so that the case does not fall into the hands of NAACP lawyers. In Finch’s opinion, the latter are too eagerly seeking cases they can rush into the federal courts.

If Finch is not the champion of civil rights people took him to be in To Kill a Mockingbird, his attitude about the law has supposedly remained consistent. Uncle Jack Finch tells Jean Louise: “The law is what Atticus lives by. He’ll do his best to prevent somebody beating up somebody else, and then he’ll turn around and try to stop the Federal Government if it is breaking the law . . . . [B]ut remember this, he’ll always do it by the letter of the law. That’s the way he lives.”

But alas, even Finch’s belief in the law has a hollowness to it. In Uncle Jack’s opinion, Atticus Finch’s law is only a “tin god.” For Atticus Finch, law and the abstract justice it might yield were part of a cultivated false consciousness. It enabled him to carry on despite the confusion and the contradictions that had begun to bedevil the American South of the mid-twentieth century.

Harper Lee’s reflections on Atticus Finch and the law are neither secondary nor inconsequential. She herself was the daughter of a lawyer/ judge and came within one semester of graduating from law school. In her earnest account of Atticus Finch, Lee warns against having a rigid and superficial belief in law as a guide in life. It is not enough, Lee seems to be telling us, to simply live by the letter of the law.

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