Despite blots on his character after Harper Lee’s publication of Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch can and probably should remain a hero, though not without qualification. He can no longer represent the impossible standard of perfection that no actual person or compelling fictional character could meet.
If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Atticus is a flawed man who despite his depravity found the courage and wisdom to do the right thing under perilous circumstances.
Consider what Uncle Jack says to Jean Louise Finch in the final pages of Watchman: “As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings – I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us.”
These words are aimed at adoring readers as much as at Jean Louise. They’re not just about the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird; they are about any Atticuses we might have known and loved in our lives: our fathers, grandfathers, teachers, coaches, and mentors. Lee may have had her own father, A. C. Lee, in mind. After all, he was, according to Lee’s biographer Charles Shields, “no saint, no prophet crying in the wilderness with regard to racial matters. In many ways, he was typical of his generation, especially about issues involving integration. Like most of his generation, he believed that the current social order, segregation, was natural and created harmony between the races.”
Yet A. C. Lee defended two black men charged with murder, just as Atticus defended Tom Robinson.
The above text is an excerpt from my essay “Children Once, Not Forever: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Growing Up,” published in the Indiana Law Journal Supplement, Vol. 91, No. 6 (2015). To view the full essay, you may download it here at SSRN or visit the website of the Indiana Law Journal.