Idolizing Atticus, Empathizing With Scout

Idolizing Atticus, Empathizing With Scout

If you pay attention to our social media (Facebook and Twitter), you know that I’ve devoted no little time over the past few weeks to articles and updates on Harper Lee’s newly released novel, Go Set a Watchman. And if you’ve been following the media, you know that in this early draft, which eventually led to To Kill a Mockingbird, the sainted Atticus is hardly saintly. He is flawed. His flaw is deeply relevant, then and now: he is racist. This fact came to light when The New York Times broke the international embargo on the novel, publishing its review “Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side” on July 10. Since then, the internet has been flooded with articles and comments addressing Atticus’s racism, among them “These Scholars Have Been Pointing Out Atticus Finch’s  Racism for Years,” and  “Of Course Atticus Finch Was a Racist – and That’s Okay.”

People are upset. Friends of mine – literary scholars, even – have written that they feel betrayed by this new portrayal. Elsewhere on the internet, some people are worried about how Lee’s altered portrayal of Atticus will affect children who have been named after him. These outbursts raise so many questions. Is it possible to tarnish a literary character’s reputation? Should we even be reading these two Atticuses as the same man?

I’m less interested in these questions, however, than I am in what these concerns demonstrate clearly to me: how effectively novels help us learn and empathize. Studies have shown that reading literature helps us practice empathizing with characters and then leads us to better, more empathetic practices in our daily lives. To Kill a Mockingbird takes this a step further, making empathy a crucial part of its message. Atticus tells Scout “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.” Scout spends the rest of the novel learning just this skill, growing better at it by the day.

The novel extends the same lesson to its readers, and that it does so effectively couldn’t have better proof than all this furor over Atticus.

I don’t know if I’ll read Go Set a Watchman, but I did reread To Kill a Mockingbird this past weekend. It was better than I remembered: funnier, more interesting, and more powerful. I had forgotten that Scout ends the novel dressed as a ham.  But Atticus was less than I remembered. He was poorly fleshed out. We see him only through his young daughter’s eyes – and she idolizes him.

If Atticus is less, Scout is more. She is deeply flawed, and consequently feels more vividly human. It’s hard not to empathize with her as she learns to navigate her racist society. The strength of that empathy, the fact that it impacts not just me but many readers of the novel, is evidenced in the fact that we end up idolizing Atticus, too.  Or, at least, the Atticus Scout presents to us. We take on Scout’s emotional investment in her father; we feel it with her. And her neat, perfect, morally-upright parent comes to symbolize moral rectitude for us, too. If he is her hope for a just world, he is ours as well.

But idolatry comes at a cost, and not merely the cost of growing up and realizing one’s parents are imperfect products of their culture, as are we all. For us, the cost may well be realizing that the novel we remembered is not the novel Harper Lee wrote. Her novel is powerful because, by placing us deeply in the mind of an eight-year old child, she denaturalizes the assumptions that our culture naturalizes constantly – assumptions about class and race, about the value of a person. These are assumptions no new “uncovered” manuscript can undermine.

Image: mystuart (on and off), Flickr.

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.