Atticus Finch: From Hero to Racial Bigot; A Comparative Analysis of Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman

-Anup Joshi
Atticus Finch: From Hero to Racial Bigot; A Comparative Analysis of Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman

This research paper explores the racist attitude of Harper Lee’s Legendary character Atticus Finch from her 1960’s Pulitzer winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird in comparison with the preliminary version of the same novel, Go Set A Watchman written in mid 1950s and published in 2015. Set during mid 1930s at Maycomb city of Alabama, the iconoclastic characterization of the protagonist Atticus Finch who desperately attempts to defend a black man Tom Robinson victimized for a framed rape trial, fueled at promoting social harmony in America after the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird. “After all, anyone can love people who are lovely” (Shields, 181). Atticus Finch was loved by everyone for his heroic character on revolutionizing the prevalent racial inequality. But after the publication of Go Set A Watchman which is stated to be the first draft of the former novel and set twenty years after the story took place, the whole assumption was upside down. Atticus Finch suffering from arthritis in his early seventies turns out to be the unbelievingly stubborn, stereotypic and racist character. As Mark Lawson claims:
This liberal hero(Atticus Finch), who was ostracized as a “nigger lover” in Mockingbird…is found behaving, in the 1950s, in a way that admirers of…his earlier life will find painful and shocking. To the horror also of his daughter, the anti-racist lawyer now attends public meetings to oppose the Supreme Court’s attempts to impose integrated education and equal voting rights in the south. (par. 9)
Before American Civil War(1861-1865), millions of blacks were enslaved in America for centuries. They were not liable to vote and lived a brutal life of animals chained to the will of whites. Only after 15th amendment(1870) black males were allowed to vote. However the reforms introduced by the government were in vain. With no property, no education and prevailing white supremacy, blacks couldn’t enjoy a drop of their rights. During 1930s too, the situation was prototypical. When Bob Ewell accused Tom Robinson for the rape of his daughter Mayella, the blame itself was omnipotent to convict him as criminal. There was nothing a black could do to defend the trial. As Atticus points out, “In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life” (Lee, 243). It was very odd at that time for Atticus to stand by the side of a black person but unlike other white men, he stood audaciously for justice. This humanist side of Atticus lingers throughout To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus adds, “…the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral…but this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this court-room who has never told a lie” (Lee, 226). He resents on the system of judging a person by his color, ethnicity or gender. Amidst the white-centric social conventions of 1930s, Atticus views all the human beings as equal and pleads for equal treatment from the court-room. In spite of people humiliating his whole family for being “nigger lover”, Atticus strives on challenging the racial injustice even at the cost of death threats. He emerges to defend Tom Robinson even at a lethal mob lynch and endures when Bob Ewell spits right on his face. He always detested the existing racial herd mentality of the residents of Maycomb.
The kind, wise, honorable and liberal instincts of Atticus Finch have established him as a role model of multicultural America. Along with the advocate of racial justice, he is also an emblem of gender equality and liberal parenting. As per Miss Maudie’s words, “Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets” (Lee, 54). “The Atticus we all met on…grad school supplied a hero for all seasons, and we prefer to keep him that way. As Shaffer points out, ‘An important thing about hero stories is that they appeal from life to life.’ That's what Lee gave us: a hero story we can't forget” (Carter, par.11). Many readers respected Atticus for standing against racism though he ultimately loses the case of Tom Robinson.  All the virtues of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird conspires to ascend him to a legendary heroic character of all time.
But in novel Go Set a Watchman which stands as the sequel to the former novel and claimed to be discovered in a safe deposit box in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville after half century it was written, Atticus’ virtues are dramatically overturned. The novel follows Scout, the nine year old narrator of To Kill A Mockingbird, now often referred by the name Jean Louise Finch with which she was baptized. She undergoes through disillusionment on discovering her heroic father transformed to a racist bigot on her return to her hometown from New York in 1950s. She comes across a pamphlet “The Black Plague” and to her shock witnesses her father amidst the Klu Klux Clan members who deliver racist speech. The changed Atticus asks his daughter, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? ...Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negroes children?” (Lee, 183). Atticus has even brainwashed his secretary Henry, who is willing to marry Jean Louise. Henry refers black people by “public menace” (Lee, 65) though he himself is victimized by the prevailing social hierarchy. Born from an alcoholic father who later deserted him along with his mother, Henry is often referred as “white trash” by Jean’s aunt Alexandra and is disproved for marital relation with Finch family who are at the top spectrum of social hierarchy.
Another shocking picture of Atticus’s extreme racist nature is unmasked when the case of Calpurnia’s grandson Frank(who killed a drunk pedestrian on speeding his car) comes to him. He decides to take the case not to defend his client but “to plead him guilty” as he is afraid of the case shifting to “wrong hands”, the NAACP(National Association for Advancement of Colored People) lawyers who “are standing around like buzzards down here waiting for things like this to happen” (Lee, 114). The whole novel stands as the Atticus’ disapproval of NAACP’s civil rights movements in south during 1950s. He adds, “..white is white and black’s black…would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered, you know” (Lee, 184). He continuously detests the idea of less educated blacks ascending to important position in states affairs through quota system.
            Furthermore, Go Set A Watchman is home to several other numerous heartbreaking scene of prejudices. Almost characters of the novel gear up as worshipers of hatred. Alexandra informs to Jean, “Nobody in Maycomb goes to see Negroes anymore, not after what they’ve been doing to us..Keeping a nigger happy these days is like catering to a king” (Lee, 126). It seems that Atticus stood for the justice of blacks in To Kill A Mockingbird because “That was the time when they(whites) owned ‘em(blacks) silly” (Lee,135). As a county lawyer he was just doing his job of defending a black man as assigned. Catherine Nichols even claims that Atticus was always a racist character in Lee’s mind. She points:
The final tableau of To Kill A Mockingbird has always given me a sour feeling toward the book—it ends with the black man dead, the poor white man also dead, the law uninterested in prosecuting their murders. The white gentleman and his children are sadder and wiser, but the wisdom imparted is essentially about the hopelessness of defending black people and poor white people from one another. (par.1)
            However Jean Louise, schooled by Atticus Finch of “Mockingbird” is represented as the advocate of black-civil rights in Go Set A Watchman and she literally takes his place of racial heroism. She despises and protests all the racists. She becomes devastated after the conversation with her racist father, who confesses her, “I’ve killed you Scout. I had to” (Lee, 189) and makes her mind to leave his house. She even yells to her father, “You double dealing, ring-tailed old son of a bitch!” (Lee, 189) Uncle Jack as a mentor of Jean Louise stops her from leaving and quite correctly connotes her, “You’re color blind, Jean Louise” (Lee, 201). He depicts the real face of the world to her which is harsh and full of hatred. He confirms, “Everyman’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective consciousness” (Lee, 197). The novel ends with the idealistic destruction of Jean’s father figure. Hillary Busis names this ending as more realistic than the prior one which is also loved much because people love fantasy.
Watchman is messier than Mockingbird in every way — its plot isn't a neatly wrapped package, its writing isn't as honed, its message is more muddled. Yet it's also, in some ways, more mature than its predecessor (which is also its successor — more on that in a bit). Perhaps Mockingbird came out first because its morals are easier to swallow — but less reflective of the world in which Lee was actually living. (Busis, par.5)
So, we can allude that To Kill A Mockingbird is constructed on the ground of fantasy. By creating Atticus as a heroic character, Lee not only won Pulizer, her novel consoled the growing outrage of Black Civil Right Movement of then America and became as popular as bible. Blacks comprehended that not all whites are racist, some are too good too. It definitely motivated to establish social harmony. This might be the reason for publisher’s rejection to publish Go Set A Watchman when it was written. This so called first draft with Atticus’ dark racist face would have certainly created mess and would have welcomed numerous criticisms. Readers are far more devastated to discover their legendary character turned racist overnight, than to know the death of Scout’s loving-brother Jem Finch. The perturbing reality of Alabama portrayed during 1950s in the later published novel has definitely generated dismay among good Atticus’s followers.
Alike Jean Louise, the readers are also shocked to see Atticus as a stereotypic racist figure after period of twenty years. "I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again," Scout disapproves of her father in Go Set A Watchman, "If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me — if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing" (Lee, 187). Atticus’ old age can also be the reason for the drift in his thoughts. Laura Geggel analyses, “Atticus' old age may partly explain his changed perceptions. Studies have shown, people of age 18 to 39, as well as 60 years or older, tend to change their attitudes more than middle-age people do” (par. 9). But still, the age factor seems to be somehow dim for such an alteration in his thoughts at the concluding part of his life. So we can even stick to the idea that Lee’s Atticus was partially racist from the very beginning and it only got advance over time. The evidences of him loosing the case and shootout of Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird contributes to this logic.
To conclude, Go Set A Watchman completely destroys the heroic part of Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird and establishes him as a hypocrite, white-centered racist of south. Lee has presented Finch as the prototype of majority of white men during 1950s. Whereas, the former version of the same character in his early fifties, is the one that was inevitable to reestablish social harmony and justice during that time. But still, Atticus Finch who stood for Tom Robinson and gave all the anti-racist speech on the courtroom, unable to save the mockingbird provides some hint that he was not very hero but been the same always.
Works cited
Busis, Hillary. “What if 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is fantasy and 'Go Set a Watchman' is
reality?”. Mashable. July 22, 2016. Web. <
Carter, Stephen. “Harper Lee Created The Greatest American Hereo”. Chicago Tribune. July
23, 2016. Web. <
Geggel, Laura. “Why Atticus Finch's Racist Shift in 'Watchman' Could Be an Anomaly”.
Live Science. July 25, 2016. Web.
Lawson, Mark. “Go Set a Watchman Review - More Complex than Harper Lee’s Original
Classic but Less Compelling”. The Guardian. July 23, 2016. Web.
< harper-
Lee, Harper. Go Set A Watchman. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. Print.
Lee, Harper. TO Kill A Mockingbird. London: Arrow Books, 2015. Print.
Zezebel. Web. <
Shields, J. Charles. I am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
2008. Print.
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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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