Study Guide

Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman

By Harper Lee

Atticus Finch

Everything is A-OKKK

Atticus Finch wears two watches—a wristwatch and a pocket watch—but he has no idea what time it is. Yep, times are a-changin', but Atticus can't give up his pocket watch out of "habit" (2.1). Even though, due to his arthritis, he can barely hold it.

This is a guy who once won acquittal for a black man in a rape trial, but now he attends the local Citizens' Council, a patriarchal white organization dedicated to talking about the dangers of black people. These are the men who today would counter #blacklivesmatter with #whitelivesmatter, the men blind to their own privilege, the men threatened by anyone who isn't a white male.

Shocking, isn't it, to see a beloved hero behave this way? (Just ask the people who changed their kid's name because of it. No joke.)

It's shocking for his daughter, too, when she sees his behavior:

The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her […] had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly. (8.101)

Jean Louise immediately writes him off as a racist. And things just get worse when Henry tells Jean Louise that Atticus even attended a KKK rally in his youth. "He's probably the Grand Dragon by now" (16.52), Jean Louise snipes with her characteristic acidic humor.

She used to ask herself, "What would Atticus do?" (9.14) Now she wonders what he'll do when she confronts him.

To Kill a Finch

The answer? He won't do anything.

Honestly, that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Atticus's character. Although we're told that "Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch" (9.1), we'd also add stubborn to the list.

Does the man ever lose an argument? No. Because he never backs down. He never compromises. He expects others to compromise with him, to bend to his will. Arguing with Atticus Finch is like arguing with a wall.

And he knows it, too.

He knows he's a hypocrite—another word to add to the list of his characteristics. "Hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anybody" (16.99), he tells Jean Louise.

Jean Louise initially writes him off, thinking, "You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave" (12.96). Devastating to Scout and devastating to any To Kill a Mockingbird fan.

Why so devastating? Because "She never questioned it, never thought about it" (9.14).

Huge mistake.

So should you forget everything about the Atticus you thought you knew? Is this a different Atticus than the one portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird? Has he changed, or was he always that way? Maybe Scout didn't see his true character because of her childlike idolization of her father? Maybe we didn't see his true character because of our childlike idolization of his archetype?

Whatever your answer is to this question, we—like like Jean Louise in Go Set a Watchman—have to re-evaluate our relationship with Atticus.

But But But

We can hear the peanut gallery now: "But Atticus was just a product of his times!" "Stop reading it through our 21st-century lens!" "He never did anything bad; he just went to the meetings!" 

Okay, so maybe Atticus is progressive for his time period; maybe he's just trying to go with the Maycomb flow; maybe Jean Louise is being too harsh on him. 

Or...maybe not.

What's your take?

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