Gregory Peck as lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. A critical and commercial success, the movie won Peck an Oscar for Best Actor and endeared the character to generations of fans. Photo: Filepic
Atticus Finch came into my life when I was at a crossroads, though I did not know it at the time. I was 17 years old, on my last year of secondary school, and my father had just been diagnosed with cancer.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, within which Atticus resided, was one of my literature texts that year. Books had always been something my father and I had in common, and he unearthed an old leather-bound copy of the book (it belonged either to my grandfather or great-grandfather) for me to read. He loved both the book and the movie based on it, where Gregory Peck takes on the iconic character.
In many ways, Atticus shaped the way I thought about justice and equality. Mockingbird’s story – of the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s, where the trial of a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman exposes the ugly racial prejudices of the American South – resonated with themes that I could immediately identify with, and dare I say, continue to be relevant today.
As the accused Tom Robinson’s lawyer, Atticus’ steadfast commitment to giving him fair representation, despite the disapproval and animosity of the rest of the town, is one of the book’s major thrusts. Intertwined with parallel events that all illustrate ideas of prejudice and fairness, Mockingbird is one of those books that I still instinctively fall back on when I think of titles that have influenced my worldview.
But more than that, Atticus was the fictional father-figure I turned to for guidance and hope, at a time when my own father’s struggle with his disease often left him unable to do so. The fact that it was narrated by Atticus’ six-year-old daughter Scout amplified this; her admiration and adoration of her father touched the core of my unspoken fears of losing mine.
My father passed away before that year ended, and I’ve never been able to read Mockingbird properly again.
I’ve dipped into specific chapters and read excerpts. I know why it works so well as a piece of literature, and I appreciate Lee’s wonderful writing and her ability to bring Maycomb to such detailed life.
I’ve also read enough analysis and discussions on the book to see its flaws. Yet, in all honesty, I don’t think I can ever have anything but a wholly biased view of Mockingbird.
It was with mixed feelings, therefore, that I received the news of Go Set A Watchman being published. As more information became available, the more uncertain I became about whether I wanted to read this book.
There have been allegations that Lee never intended for this book to be published, and that at the age of 89, she had been somehow coerced into agreeing.
It has also been revealed that Watchman was initially the first draft of Mockingbird, and that Lee’s editor had seen the potential of developing Scout’s flashbacks into a full story. This eventually inspired Lee to write the novel that would go on seal her name in literary history.
But like most readers, my biggest worry (perhaps selfishly), was that Watchman would irrevocably change my memory of Mockingbird.
In Watchman, Scout – who now goes by her real name, Jean Louise – is 26 years old, and returns to Maycomb from her life in New York to visit an aged Atticus. During her visit, she discovers things about her father that leads her to question the exalted view she has of him, namely that he holds bigoted and deeply regressive views on racial segregation.
To ardent fans of the book, it was a heartbreaking revelation: Atticus, the hitherto paragon of goodness, integrity and equality, a racist?
Reviews, meanwhile, have been lukewarm, with many saying the book reads like a first draft rather than a full-fledged novel – which really shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Watchman, for me, struggles to find a reason for being. While it is an absorbing read thanks to Lee’s talents as a storyteller, I doubt that it would stand alone as a novel without the association to Mockingbird.
What did surprise me, however, was how little any of this mattered. I cannot say I wasn’t horrified when Jean Louise has a pivotal conversation with Atticus that reveals his opinions on racial integration.
These are powerfully written scenes, and we are squarely in her position as her hero is revealed to be deeply flawed – I have to admit, a few tears were shed.
Yet, this Atticus somehow did not change the Atticus of my teenage years. Perhaps this was Atticus as Lee always intended for him to be, perhaps not. But to me, it doesn’t really matter.
Characters belong to their creator, yes, but they also belong to us readers. And while the author is certainly free to make of her characters what she wishes, so are we.
To each reader, a character’s reality is a mysterious combination of what the author wrote and what we build out of our own interpretations and experiences.
And so for me, there will always be only one Atticus Finch, the same one I met when I was 17.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or follow her on Twitter.