It’s been 55 years since author Harper Lee released To Kill a Mockingbird, which chronicled lawyer Atticus Finch’s defense of wrongly convicted Tom Robinson, a poor African-American man in Maycomb, Alabama.
In the racially charged atmosphere of the early 1960s, the book’s main theme surrounding racial inequality and justice struck a chord with readers, as the end of segregation was still being debated in public courts and private households across America.
For the past 50 years, generations of students have studied the lessons of integrity and courage that Atticus shows when standing up against those who racially discriminate; Atticus is a literary hero of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, the legacy of Atticus Finch may be soiled with the recent release Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Lee’s classic. (However, according to the 89-year-old author, the original manuscript for Go Set A Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird and acts like a “parent novel” to the original.)
Taking place 20 years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, the story follows a now-adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as she returns home to Maycomb to check in on her beloved father and childhood town. However, much like Scout herself, readers might not like what they see when she gets there. Scout’s older brother Jem is long dead, Cal, the motherly African-American maid of the Finch family, has moved out, and Atticus bears no resemblance to his former self.
Furthermore, Maycomb has fallen in line with the predominantly racist views of other southern towns in the 1950s, as city-hall white-supremacy meetings are on the agenda for the townsfolk. When Scout discovers hate propaganda by her father’s reading chair, she attempts to track Atticus down, only to find him presiding over a town-hall KKK meeting. From Scout’s shocking discovery, it's apparent Atticus is no longer the courageous figure we know from To Kill a Mockingbird and, like the rest of the Maycomb townsfolk, seems to be an unfortunate product of the times.
If Lee’s intentions were to show that even the best of us, including Atticus, are flawed, the story doesn’t use subtlety to cast a dark shadow upon the iconic character. Atticus’s thoughts about the “Negro people” are laid out in plain speech. The moral hero from To Kill a Mockingbird is now reduced to a narrow-minded old man who only sees African-American people as “still in their childhood as a people”, a sad takeaway from the sparse, disappointing novel.
Go Set a Watchman has the potential to tarnish Atticus Finch as a symbol of the moral high ground. One is left to consider if generations to come will view Atticus in the same shining light as before, or in a light that looks much darker now, much like a reflection of the bygone era itself.