Book talk

Betrayed by Atticus Finch

Like a lot of readers I was awed, humbled and amazed by the actions and general existence of Atticus Finch within To Kill A Mockingbird. Like a lot of readers, I felt the overwhelming betrayal at the actions and words of Atticus Finch in the newly released Go Set A Watchman. 

Despite the third person perspective, I was drawn into the point of view of Jean Louise as she lays into her father about the way he was acting and the way he had changed. Jean Louise had kept hold of the progressive attitude and belief that people are people no matter the colour of their skin or anything else, an attitude that she believed she had picked up from her father. Throughout her childhood, Jean Louise looked up to her father, believing him to be the best type of person; honest and fair. Returning 20 years later at the age of 26, Jean Louise still has this childish image of her father. Through this so does the reader. The reader has seen Atticus Finch through Jean Louise’s eyes and got an idea of him as near enough a perfect man. As a result but Jean Louise and the reader are left feeling betrayed in a way that can not be explained, a betrayal so deep that you feel like you no longer know the person who means the most to you.

However, when I finished reading the book and took the time to really think about it, several things occurred to me that didn’t while I was reading. In discussing this I am going to be ignoring that Go Set A Watchman was not intended to be published and instead reading it as though it is literally a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. The most important aspect for me to consider is the narrator of the story. In Mockingbird the story is told from Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s point of view as a six year old girl being raised by her father. She looks up to her father as her moral compass and her brother Jem as the person who helps her to understand the situations. She sees Atticus as a man who believes that all people should be treated the same, she remembers conversations like:

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody”

What Scout heard that was that as a human being and as a Christian it is your duty to treat everyone the same, although it is not always easy to love everyone, upon first meeting that should always be the thing you aim for. This is what Jean Louise holds on to and moving away from the South to New York, she thinks nothing of seeing Blacks and Whites mixing in the streets, in restaurants, on buses because in her mind there should not be a segregation. Jean Louise’s moral compass comes from what she saw in her father as a young child, something perhaps that was not there in the way she viewed in.

Within Mockingbird it is easy to forget that Atticus is a mere man, he is a white man who had grown up in the South and that he is likely to have opinions and believes that reflect that. The reader sees what Scout sees, a white man defending a black man and insisting that he be tried fairly. While this appears to be the actions of a man who could never be considered a racist, I believe it is important to look at Atticus without the rose-tinted glasses that Scout uses. In my opinion, Atticus’ actions in defending  Tom Robinson have more to do with his belief in the court system and his longing for justice whoever it is aimed at, than it does to do with his opinion on people based on their race.

“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”

In this quote, during Robinson’s trial, Atticus is asking for fairness, the way he would for any man who was in Robinson’s position. The judge appointed Atticus as Robinson’s defender because he knew Atticus would be the only lawyer to focus on the case and not the skin colour. On the surface, this appears to be an anti-racism act, however I believe it is just that Atticus values justice above all else. Looking at Robinson as an individual Atticus is able to see the need for a fair trial, while looking at people of colour as a whole, he – like the majority of people around him – sees a group of people who do not have the intelligence or enough of an ability to be civilised to truly be equal to white men.

This opinion of Atticus’ is shown fully in Watchman as Jean Louise comes to realise that her father is hardly better than the other people in Maycomb, that he holds some of the same beliefs when it comes to true equality. Jean Louise is horrified to hear Atticus use words such as “backwards people” and ask “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” This argument between Atticus and Jean Louise shows his belief in segregation and her belief that her father is not the man who believed him to be.

However, it is unfair to Lee as an author to say that Atticus is out of character or – if finally taken into account that Watchman is a first draft that wasn’t intended to co-exist with Mockingbird – dramatically changed between drafts. The  Atticus we see without Watchman is much the same Atticus we see in Mockingbird, we are just looking from a different stage in life. In Mockingbird both Scout and the reader seem to regard Atticus making comments like “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance” as a comment on the poor behaviour of white men, which on some level he is, however underneath that he is expression the same opinion he expresses in Watchman. Atticus speaks of the Negro’s ignorance because he see people of colour as a lesser race, as a race that could not possibly understand or have civilisation in the correct or rather the White way. From this, I believe that the reader is not betrayed by Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman but rather by Jean Louise’s rose-tinted glasses in To Kill A Mockingbird. 

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