‘I do my best to love all people’. – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

The watchman that appears in the title of Harper Lee’s new novel is a symbolic tool pined for by her great heroine Scout Finch, one that might be set so that she may tell: ‘[that] this is what a man says and this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and here is that justice and make me understand the difference’.

Scout has by this point moved from Maycomb to New York City, and, in the most sensational twist in the work, had the imperial estimations of her father Atticus Finch, estimations she shared with so many, utterly demolished. Finch, who so famously did all in his power to see that a man be tried and judged fairly against prejudicial motives, is now a settled pro-segregationist. Many readers of the original, in which Finch casts such a profound, safe and reassuring shadow, have had to recall their own court in kind, and decide which of the two justices is meant for Finch.

It seems that heroism is no longer to be trusted. It’s said that after a certain age the Western individual is prone to cultivating certain fantasies: that in their day politicians did not philander, that prices were reasonable, that they as children respected their elders. Given that fantasy has a peculiar tendency to accrue power in a way that truth sometimes cannot, it is unsurprising that the heroism of Atticus Finch, the remote and aloof figure of liberalism at the heart of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has come to seem more real than real to a short history of book lovers. Under his image of ideal paternity hope was stoked immediately among the young and kind-minded in an American South still without Civil Rights; ten thousand legal careers must’ve been launched in his image at least. This makes it all the more shocking, galling, or even hard to believe, that his about-face between the still marvellous Mockingbird and its less convincing sequel has been so drastic.

Unfortunately, Finch’s re-evaluated character comes into a post-Millennial age that seems to seek to deliquesce the very idea that a human can be primarily of moral and upstanding construction. Contemporary fiction is obsessed with glib, self-congratulatory ‘flaw’, characters written not in aspiration but seeking to absolve viewers of what they consider their own treasured foibles. Put simply, Lee’s revelation of the new, older Atticus Finch could not have come at a less constructive time; instead of fulfilling a more profound potential, Lee’s change to the character threatens to simply indulge this trend.

The obsession with flaw, as if it had just been invented and put to market, is such an awful one because it smacks of childish discovery; the ritual is the same as when a kid of five has just observed the role of bees in pollination and thinks themselves to be the first in possession of this fact (only without any of the endearing qualities such beliefs have in children).

One invention that is of this age, on the other hand, is the conversion of ‘feelings’ to primary moral currency, a standard under which the ‘new’ Atticus Finch is being judged. This is remarkable because, again taking the development of Atticus Finch between the novels as canon, it is the precise opposite standard under which the ‘original’ Finch of Mockingbird stood. Some people seem ready to largely alter their feelings for the character, or write them off entirely, on the basis of his expressed feeling against his recorded actions. This is despite the fact that Finch the character lived in an age that demanded action, and in which action was appropriately prided and prized over mere feeling: as proof, if you like, of what a man ‘meant’. Regardless of his later feelings, Finch’s fictional act as a younger man was immortal, of a moral fortitude that, regardless of its aetiology (which is ultimately unimportant) has inspired countless real individuals. That Finch later grew into prejudices that contradict his act in defending an innocent black man in the days of Jim Crow, gives the act all the more reason to be immortalised.

That’s because Finch acted in a way that transcended feelings, that rose above petty beliefs and their cousins, prejudice, all for the sake of higher reason and higher law. We cannot expect, as many writers so ecstatically affirm to us time and again in every other day’s paper, to be completely absent of the possession of elements within ourselves of which we should not be proud; this would be an expectation trebly unfair of a man like Finch, who grew up in an age and environment where prejudices were not only convention but law. Yet in Finch, who for so long was an aspirational if intimidating portrait of a paragon of liberalism, we see the heroism of a man who rose to meet his higher callings probably well aware of the presence of those lower elements in his psyche. His act transcended feeling. In an age in which the very basic connection of act and feeling has been forgotten, an age in which simply having feeling is deemed as good as acting on one; one cannot expect the enormity of this achievement to be acknowledged. But the fact remains that Finch, newly reduced to a station of more normality among the Southern white men of his time, has had his heroic station enriched.

But what of the later beliefs of an Atticus Finch chairing the Citizens’ Council? The passage of time has had its way with Finch, that much is clear. The message of To Kill a Mockingbird is that you cannot know another person until you have walked in their shoes. The Finch of Go Set a Watchman is riven with the exhaustion of rheumatism. From attempts on his children’s life, to a career as a man against the legal imbalances of his time, to a man of law who was ultimately unable to prevent the death of an innocent, Finch’s life and times as we know them are riddled with the sort of conflict in seemingly futile circumstances that takes a severe toll on the psyche. He could, if this is the very same Atticus who defended Tom Robinson in the absence of justice and hope, have sunken into the ease of communal prejudice to give himself some respite in his retirement. It’s easy to overestimate the ability of the mind to have such boundless energy as to resist all attempts on its virtuous elements. Without networks of support, which Finch lacked, resistance can only be sustained for so long.

It seems quaintly hypocritical then that observers in such an age as ours, where faults are embraced and worn as a badge of honour with little resistance to their charms, have the cheek to scold or disapprove of an individual who took such lengths to resist or at least disguise his infection by the far stronger, more violent and more consequential faults of his time and who ultimately could not. If we take To Kill a Mockingbird to be as canonical as Go Set a Watchman, then the Atticus Finch we see in the former is as aspirational a character as ever: he resisted the temptation to cave into easy ignorance, with its promise of parochial comfort and group support, and acted for the continued health, freedom and happiness of others where his fellows shrank from the responsibility. He had less admirable elements to his character, yet he had both the nerve and vision to see that they must be tamed and suppressed, and he found the strength to do so. He faltered towards the end of his life. That’s a shame, execrable even; and yet, regardless of the impetus, he had already fought in the good fight for men and women of all kinds to stand equal under the society of law, and that is what counts.

We may see from Scout’s own position on the matter in Go Set a Watchman that she has taken up her father’s mantle, attempting to act in the image of his heroism that she so illicitly observed, even if under that mantle now the elder Atticus Finch sits a smaller man than the younger.

There is more to the analysis of this new Atticus Finch than simply reading the novels in order of interior chronology and making some assessment. There is a reason that, despite being written second, Mockingbird graced us first. Likewise there is a reason, despite the plot’s reduced cultural prominence, that it is so much more likely to remain the definitive product of Lee’s imagination and conscience – Mockingbird is a vision of unprecedented maturity and Watchman a vision of naiveté. This seems a peculiar theory, given that Mockingbird is written with a child’s eye and Watchman is written from a more adult and uncompromising perspective.

Yet, the compromise of Mockingbird is key to its power and its wisdom. Having internalised the lesson of Mockingbird, that aforementioned one about walking in another’s shoes, we may come to see, perhaps as Scout does, that old Atticus is not a logical progression from young Atticus. Rather, the opposite is true. Novels are lenses of perspective, and in terms of the empathy granted by the perspective of Mockingbird, actually less naïve and richer in wisdom despite being a memoir of childhood, it is perhaps the Atticus of Mockingbird who is the more true, for he is the one most truly, honestly and sincerely interfaced with.

The perspective of Go Set a Watchman couches the work in what has become another modern tendency: to forgo the effort of empathy and judge others ruthlessly and ahistorically from a position of virulent solipsism. The perspective of To Kill a Mockingbird is honed through patience and a greater empathic sense, something manifested not only in the moral course of the work’s plot but in its literary merits. A further reason that Mockingbird will endure is that it is complete, its digressions pruned and polished, its dialogue evocative and its pacing perfect. It is, as befits a work that grew out of a first version, the mature work. Go Set a Watchman, as befits that first version, is passionate and passionately confused, but immature: without all the pieces, without all the answers.

Lee writes in Go Set a Watchman that ‘prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends’. This is the quote that, beyond all else that Lee could write, exonerates her Finch. It can be, as it has been proven in the real past, that ideologues, and kind and true-hearted individuals, can be perverted from their original virtue by any of a number of influences. But the prejudice of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman begins where the reason of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird ends; to admit that it ended, while painful for any lover of the original novel, does nothing to mute the gravity of Finch’s fight in reason’s name as a young man. It’s a fight of bravery and beauty against everything, apparently even against some of the fighter’s own ideas. That is what makes it so very special.