Saturday, July 25, 2015

Understanding Atticus


For anyone who's read this blog for any time now knows, one of my all-time favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird and that a role model for fatherhood has been for me the character of Atticus Finch. He was a literary figure who personified in so many ways what a man of real character and strength were. He also reminded me in many ways of my grandfather, Papa Fred, who, after he died, was spoken of as a man who never said an unkind thing about anyone. As well as my Uncle Richard. Both were quiet men of inegrity.They did not need to prove themselves but showed strength through their generosity, gentleness, and by being true gentleman.

How would I feel if I suddenly discovered they were racist?

Stunned.

Horrified.

Uncertain of my understanding of them.

It would shatter and shake my idealzation of them.

This is exactly what happens to Jean Lousie Finch (aka Scout) in the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird entitled Go Set a Watchman.  



Before the book ever hit shelves, all one knew about it was that Atticus was a racist.

What?!!?

How could the man who told this same daughter, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it," be a racist? Is that contradictory?  Isn't that out -of-character for a lawyer who defends a black man wrongly accused of rape? How can I reconcile that dichotomy?

Look at one of our founding fathers: Thomas Jefferson. He wrote that "all men are created equal," but did not believe this. He considered giving up his slaves until he realized that would be the end of his wealthy lifestyle. Jefferson was a man who loved to spend money on collecting nice things (to such a degree that he died in debt). His comfort was more important than his conscience. Yet those words "all men are created equal" are no less true despite being written by a man who did not live up to such platitudes. Jefferson was a man of his time. A man of deep flaws and racism was a part of that. Jefferson will also play a part in the debate of this novel.

Atticus Finch is no less a product of the South he lived in. (It's funny that so many people talk about him as if he were a real man and that this has struck such a nerve in them). I'll admit, I was very, very reluctant to read this book. I was one of those who looked up to and admired this fictional man for the portrait of standing up for what you believe in even when everyone else doesn't. One of my favorite quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird is:


Like the character of Jean Louise, "I just don't like my world disturbed without some warning."


To Kill a Mockingbird is about the loss of childhood innocence, about seeing the reality of the town's racism Go Set a Watchman is about Jean Louise losing her childlike idolization of her father and the reality of the fact that racism is even in him. She begins to question herself and what she really knows. At one point, she even thinks, "Everything I have taken for right and wrong these people have taught me . . ." (The very same people who are spewing vile, racist remarks).


"There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep them all away from you. That's never possible," he tells Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird, but in Go Set a Watchman, we see that, in some ways, Atticus is one of those "ugly things" because of the segregationist attitude he has. This is hard to take for Jean Louise and for the reader, who adore and idolize him just as much as if they were his own children. How could we not?


"Integrity, humor and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch." That is how Chapter 9 of Watchman begins. This is how his daughter sees him. This is how we see him. The first novel is told through the eyes of his children. Children who idealize their father. They don't see the man, the see their version of him. That is how we have come to see him and we don't like to have that image shaken. It is a childish view that not only Jean Louise, who is now 26, has to come to grips with and a view we, the reader, have to do the same with.

Her description of her father starts as, "Atticus Finch's secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where other men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its rewards were the respect and devotion of all who knew them."  Who wouldn't want to be described like that?  That was the man we all thought we knew, just like she did. Chapter 9 describes how she and Jem knew their father like no other child because they were so often with him. But they didn't. Because children never really do. It is only as we move out of childhood, past our own selves, that we can begin to see our parents as people. Flawed, imperfect people. Idols tumble. This is all part of growing up. That's part of why growing up can be so painful.

It is like being plunged into icy water for Jean Louise to discover a racist pamphlet like The Black Plague among her father's things or to see him just sitting there, in the same court where he defended Tom Robinson, listening to the rantings of a racist speaker. He listens. He says nothing. He does not get up and leave. He doesn't disagree with this man. Is this really the Atticus we thought we knew and loved? This is what Jean Louise must confront in herself. Her childhood memories and the world where she grew up is shattered even more than they were in Mockingbird. Why? Because, unlike in the first novel, her father is no longer the man of strong character who stands alone. This time, he sits in silence and, she fears, in agreement.

Like Atticus, Go Set a Watchman is imperfect. It doesn't have the seamless layers that unfolded in To Kill a Mockingbird. Sometimes the flashbacks to childhood seemed to slow down the narrative in this newer work. The narrator's voice is not as strong as in the original novel. Nor does it have the plot driven by a court room trial. Both books have humor and a sense of humanity, but this lacks the brilliance of writing that the first novel had. Unlike Mockingbird, Watchman is a good novel, not a great one. What it does have to offer is for us to confront our own illusions about race. We live in what can often be a racially divided country. Like she did in Mockingbird, Harper Lee is playing a part in this discussion again through Watchman.


But is it a great novel?

No, it's a good one.

While Mockingbird was a novel of childhood memories that is seen through the haze of nostalgia, Watchman is about disillusionment and becoming one's own as an adult. This new novel doesn't have the court room drama to help drive the plot along and this new work can get bogged down in the debate of race that it can be more pendantic in its narrative.

Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, I don't see me rereading this new novel every few years. But I'm glad I read it so that I could make my own decision about it - and isn't that the point?




1 comment:

  1. How come you deleted your most recent post? I really enjoyed your candour.

    ReplyDelete