Harper Lee’s Imperfect Heroes

The first set of articles to be published after Harper Lee’s new novel was released this summer were marked by the same sentiment: Atticus Finch, now a racist. Despite the huge hype surrounding the book, the New Yorker deemed Lee’s novel “a failed novel about race”. Critics reduced the novel to a “distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech.”
It’s true that Watchman is a failed novel about race. There is no true conversation about race—the book is peppered with anti-racist rants, but no situations that confront racism head on. The only champion moment of race is when Scout declares that African Americans are just as equal to her. The caveat to this declaration is that Scout never expresses these thoughts aloud. When asked how New York is by a friend, Scout wishes to state how diverse it is and how, unlike Maycomb, there is more inclusivity there. She reflects to herself, “I was taught never to take advantage of anybody who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes.” Her official response to this question, instead, is: “New York? It’ll always be there.” If the heroine is unable to fully discuss race with other characters, then the novel as a whole fails to adequately address racism. However, Scout’s failure to talk about racism does not diminish the fact that she opposes it. Her unexpressed ideas are a precursor to activism for equality.
Most importantly, Watchman fails as a novel about race because the novel wasn’t intended to be about race in the first place. The novel isn’t even about the ideologies of Atticus Finch, the lawyer from To Kill a Mockingbird who defended a black man despite the social stigma this entailed. Critiques of the racial makeup of the novel fail to recognize that this novel is actually primarily concerned with the revelation that all parents are intrinsically flawed people.
Several years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout, who now goes by Jean Louise, returns to Maycomb as an adult to find her father’s racial beliefs are radically different from her own. While Atticus opposes the Brown v Board Supreme Court decision for school integration, he justifies his stance by referring to the ideals of Jeffersonian democrats. That is, he opposes any intervention by the government.
While Scout is shocked specifically by her father’s views on race, racism is only a sub-layer of the true central conflict. Jean Louise struggles to accept the idea that her father is flawed. She is not alone in this plight; many adults discover their parents’ flaws only once they have grown up themselves. In Watchman, however, Harper Lee makes it a point to discuss why the destruction of hero-worship is so painful:
“She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.”
Jean Louise’s distress doesn’t simply come from her disagreement with Atticus’s stance on a political issue. Her distress stems from the fact that her entire way of seeing both her father and herself is now revealed to be fundamentally flawed. Up until this point, Jean Louise has seen Atticus as an untouchable figure, pure to the core. Lee demonstrates that the pain of realizing one’s hero is flawed comes not only from a shift in the way that a worshipper sees a hero, but also in how one sees himself.
Lee supplements Jean Louise’s understandable reaction with a gut wrenching statement from her uncle. To comfort her, he explains: “Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level”. Uncle Finch has a good point—the whole point of hero worship is the surreal aspect of the hero himself. In Marvel and DC, even comic book superheroes are both admirable and poignant because of their aloofness and inaccessibility. For example, the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents causes him to have a dark and brooding personality. Nonetheless, he still devotes his time to fight crime as Batman, without letting his tragedy defeat him. Almost every adult will be able to recall a toppled hero, but almost all of these adults will not want to talk about it. From Lance Armstrong to Bill Cosby, many figures who exemplified heroic qualities have since fallen from the spotlight, causing devastation for those who admired them. While much recent press coverage has been focused on Bill Cosby’s fall from fame, not much media attention has been given to the reactions of those who looked up to him as a father figure.
Watchman challenges this cultural standard by actually discussing it. Lee chooses to actively discuss a flawed hero while critics choose to overlook that point and focus instead on the less central issue of race. In directly addressing the problem of fallen heroes, Lee provides a new definition of the modern hero. Jean Louise accepts Atticus’s flaws because no matter how great he is, she recognizes that he is also human. This realization and message can be painful for a reader if an icon has only recently been toppled. But that’s what Lee is good at-causing the reader to personally connect to the central issue of her novels. If the central conflict in Watchman did not resonate with us, we would find the novel far less effective.
With Lee’s discussion of hero worship in mind, the outrage over the nature of Watchman as a failed novel about race can be understood as justified, but unwarranted. Those who critique Lee’s novel for what it is not fail to give the novel its due. Reading is about understanding the value of what’s on the page, and not about critiquing what isn’t even there. Those who critique Lee’s novel for its treatment of race completely miss its actual point.
Lee forever stands as an icon in literature. Her readers need to recognize that her contributions extend past one novel and one theme, and recognize Watchman for what it is—a fascinating novel. In presenting the flaws of Atticus, Watchman doesn’t destroy the importance of Mockingbird. The flaws of Atticus only serve to increase the reader’s appreciation for his character. Jean Louise now can reflect on her father’s ideologies in To Kill a Mockingbird with an understanding that, despite his flaws, Atticus was able to do good in the community. Whether by defending an innocent black man in Mockingbird, or simply telling his daughter to think of how others feel, Atticus demonstrates that he was able to raise Jean Louise morally, despite his own fallings. Jean Louise succeeds where her father fails; while she does not actively discuss race, she has the mindset to combat racism in the future, while her father does not.
When Jean Louise finally confronts her father about his ideologies, he simply responds, “Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right— stand up to me first of all.”  Atticus’s acceptance of Jean Louise’s different opinions on race and the recognition of the possibility that his opinions may be wrong demonstrate the immense capacity this man has for understanding. Acceptance is what defines a great parent—and Atticus demonstrates in Watchman that he still has this ability. Watchman’s exploration of Atticus as a fallen hero makes it a worthwhile, poignant, and relative read. While the appeal of To Kill a Mockingbird was the conversation about race, Go Set a Watchman builds upon this with its exploration of how those ideas served to form a relationship between father and daughter. In many ways, Watchman expands upon the ideas of acceptance of race and focuses on acceptance of a fallen hero. Criticisms of Lee’s novel regarding race overlook the rewarding experience that reading it brings, and the light it can shed onto a reader’s own experiences.
Image Source: Flickr/Iam Muttoo

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