Author: Harper Lee
Finished on: 16 July 2015 (I have read two books between Death On The Nile and this, which I will write about, but I can’t stop thinking about this one – and had to write this first)
Where did I get this book: I think from Amazon, when considering baby names in 2012 (yes, we thought about calling our son Atticus!)
There is a huge amount of publicity, comment and discussion at the moment around the recently published Go Set A Watchman, the sequel/ earlier draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.
So much of the writing about this sequel is making strong assertions about To Kill A Mockingbird. And as it’s now 18 years since I read it, I decided to reread before wading into the debate. I want to revisit why I feel the way I do about these characters. What is it about this book that changed, or even shaped, the lives of so many people?
Well firstly, it is brilliant. The narration is sparkling, and amongst the most engaging I have ever read, making it almost impossible to put down (I remember the first time I read it, getting into trouble at my waitressing job for not coming back after my break because I could not force myself to stop reading). But aside from this, I was reading this time around to try and bring my views on these current debates back to the words on the page.
One of things that surprised me most was quite what an uncomfortable read it is – and not because of the horrible racism of the characters that are clearly ‘baddies’, but because of the calmly accepted racism taken for granted as normal by the characters who are very much ‘goodies’. These attitudes, this language, from ‘nice’ or ‘normal’ people are just not acceptable any more. Enormous and ugly prejudices on the basis of race, both explicit and implicit, are far from a thing of the past. But at the very bedrock of this society was a segregation and dehumanisation of black people that is just hideous to us now, and while Atticus challenges this to some extent in the story, there are actually only two moments where we get a glimpse of ourselves as people in 2015 looking at this accepted arrangement with complete disbelief and horror. One is the scene where Dill sobs in the courtroom because of the way Mr Gilmer cross examines Tom Robinson, and the subsequent conversation outside with Dolphus Raymond. And the second is Scout’s famous “I just think there’s one kind of folks. Folks.” conversation with Jem, when she seems to reach some kind of realisation that all these rules and segregation are not just ‘the way things are’, but a construct of the people and history of Maycomb (and the US, and the world), and that they are wrong.
So, I had definitely remembered more of the warm and fuzzy stuff from this book in the intervening 18 years. Scout and Walter Cunningham. Scout and Boo Radley. And that stuff is still gorgeous. Scout is still beguiling. But it does ring a little false, when she has such fundamental prejudices: “Well, Dill, after all he’s just a Negro”, that she is what we would now term ‘politically correct’ when she goes to church with Calpurnia, and when she sits on the balcony for the trial.
Much of the furore around Go Set A Watchman centres around the ‘bombshell’ that Atticus Finch is revealed to be racist, I understand largely to do with his opposition of desegregation. The truth is that this actually doesn’t seem to contradict much about his character in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Atticus is calm, rational, and he wants Tom Robinson to have a fair trial. He doesn’t want him to be convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. And he says to Scout that’s he’s happy to be called a “n- lover” (don’t want to write that word, don’t know if there’s another word in the English language I wouldn’t write you know – just shows how hard it is to critique that world from this one) because he hopes he loves everyone. But he is paternal towards the black people in the story, even Calpurnia, and his respect is based on patronage rather than an illusion of equality.
Not wanting someone to die because of a rape they didn’t commit is not the same as believing they should have equality. He believes in fairness within the constructs of the world that he lives in. He doesn’t question the segregation of black people, just like he doesn’t question the role of women (there is one moment where he suggests, perhaps jokingly, that a woman’s worth can be measured by her skill at cake-baking). He doesn’t question the situation of the Ewell family, and the plight of Mayella following the trial. This is not a man who challenges the status quo of the fundamental inequalities inherent in his society.
Of course I haven’t yet read Go Set A Watchman, and it may be that it does shock the hell out of me. But my point here is that you would struggle to find any character in this environment (particularly, but not exclusively, a white character) who was not racist when viewed through our eyes today. But also that even by the standards of the day, taken on his own merits at that time, that Atticus in Mockingbird is no saint.
There is no doubt that the willingness to do something good but unpopular, the bravery, and the rationality in the face of hatred, of Atticus Finch have been a force for good in the world. The people that care about him, myself included, are not stupid. We are not unable to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction (most of the time), but we understand that just because a character is fictional does not mean that their views, their actions, their words, can’t make as big, and often a bigger, impact than those of a ‘real’ person. We don’t think Atticus Finch lives in this world with us. But we have lived in his world with him, and it changed us.
You would struggle to find a person who has had more of an impact than Atticus Finch. Shami Chakrabarti is just one famous example of someone inspired to become a lawyer, and a positive force for good in the world, because of reading this book. It matters if Atticus Finch is racist. It matters what he thinks. And I have been very surprised indeed, in this post Roland Barthes The Death of The Author age, at how many people don’t understand that. Writers don’t have the monopoly on deciding who their characters are, and what they mean. They write the words – but words are just signifiers, and these characters take on a life of their own for every person that reads the book. As I once heard someone on a terribly erudite Radio 4 discussion programme say, if words were the thing we’d eat the menu instead of the food. To Kill A Mockingbird is the menu, but the living, breathing Atticus Finch whose world we inhabited (maybe we even climbed into his skin and walked around in it) and who influenced the way we think and live, is the food.
Atticus Finch does not belong to Harper Lee. He belongs to me. And he belongs to everyone who ever read this book and it made them want to be a better, fairer, or braver person.