'Go Set a Watchman': Has Atticus Finch become a fallen hero?

Fans and critics are struggling to come to terms with the segregationist Atticus Finch presented in Lee's new novel. 

AP Photo/Universal/File
In this 1962 file photo originally released by Universal, actor Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' based on the novel by Harper Lee.

Fifty-five years after Harper Lee first introduced Atticus Finch into millions of hearts and high school English classrooms with her debut novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," the beloved fictional lawyer is making a comeback onto the literary scene – but with a plot twist that virtually nobody saw coming. 

In Lee's upcoming second novel, "Go Set a Watchman," tomboyish Scout Finch – now 20 years older, living in New York, and known as Jean Louise – returns to her hometown of Maycomb, Ala. It is the mid-1950s and Maycomb is in the midst of a fierce civil rights battle following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

One of the town's leading opponents of desegregation? Now 72-year-old Atticus Finch, who famously risked his life to defend a black man accused of rape in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"You're the only person I've ever fully trusted and now I'm done for," a tearful Jean Louise tells Atticus, and many outraged fans are echoing the sentiment.

"Go Set a Watchman" was originally written in 1957 but was rejected by Lee's publisher, who asked for a greater focus on Scout's childhood – thus, the iconic "To Kill a Mockingbird" was born. On July 14, the novel preceding Lee's bestseller will be published for the first time amid great hype

Many fans have declared their refusal to read the novel, not wishing to ruin their image of a perfect Atticus Finch. Some critics, however, are voicing support for this darker depiction of Atticus, saying it adds more depth to an otherwise blandly heroic character.

“If Atticus Finch is not quite the plaster saint that he is in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ there could be something rich and fascinating about that,” novelist and critic Thomas Mallon told The New York Times. “The moral certainties in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are apparent from the first page, and in that sense, I don’t think it’s a great novel that deals with the tormenting questions of race in America, but maybe this new one is, if it’s more nuanced."

Others suggest that Atticus was never a "plaster saint" at all, and that he has, in fact, always been a little bit racist. 

"Atticus isn’t – never was – a bland fighter for what is empirically right," writes TIME's Daniel D’Addario. He argues that this segregationist Atticus "actually squares neatly with the paternalistic attitude Atticus takes towards black people in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and his occasionally overwrought compassion for his racist white neighbors."

"The tone of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' with its deceptively simple, childlike curiosity, simply elided consequences of those traditions that might be on the uglier side, because a young daughter overlooks the frailties in her father that are beyond her understanding," D'Addario adds. 

It is inevitable that the release of "Go Set a Watchman" will affect the way we read and re-read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in the future, says Karla FC Holloway, a professor of English and law at Duke University, but it also has the potential to make Americans take a closer look at themselves and their country's history. 

“It will force an interesting conversation about – if this is really Atticus – what have our own desires done to the character, and what is the literary truth?” Holloway told The New York Times. “This is who we want to be as a country, but this is not who Atticus was.”

Multiple reviewers have drawn comparisons between the racial turmoil at the time of the novel and present-day issues, particularly current debates over the Confederate flag. In the mid-1950s, legislators had just begun to authorize flying the Confederate flag over state capitals and incorporating it into state flags, explains Natasha Trethewey in a Washington Post review, making the release of "Go Set a Watchman" even more timely. 

"The novel serves to remind us that we are at a moment in our ongoing pursuit of justice that puts our national conscience at stake," Trethewey writes, "and it is all the more pressing that the watchman be attuned to the collective soul of our nation." 

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