Childhood hero turns out flawed

A woman looking through To Kill A Mockingbird before buying a copy of Harper Lee's book Go Set A Watchman in New York.
A woman looking through To Kill A Mockingbird before buying a copy of Harper Lee's book Go Set A Watchman in New York.PHOTO: REUTERS

Singapore fans of To Kill A Mockingbird are upset with Atticus Finch turning racist in Harper Lee's sequel Go Set A Watchman

What happens when your childhood hero turns out not to be the man you thought he was?

For fans of To Kill A Mockingbird, their image of Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defended a black man in the racially fraught 1930s of Alabama in the South, got turned on its head with the publication of Harper Lee's hotly anticipated new novel Go Set A Watchman.

The book is a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird (1960).

But after the release of an embargo- breaking review from the New York Times on July 10, Atticus turns out to be - shock shock horror horror - a racist.

A classic of modern American literature often used in schools' literature syllabi, Mockingbird is told from the perspective of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch in 1933.

"I cannot envision anybody in their 50s to hold so strongly a conviction in equality, only to renounce it when they are older, particularly when he held on to that conviction so firmly."

LAW STUDENT YU PEIYI

Her father Atticus, the lawyer in question, always advises his children to treat others with respect and without prejudice. In popular imagination, he has been seared into memory as one of the greatest literary heroes of justice and equality.

Go Set A Watchman is set 20 years later, with Scout grown up and living in New York. She returns to visit her hometown and is shocked by her changed father, now 72.

He now spouts racist remarks such as "(The blacks) have made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they're far from it yet" and attends Ku Klux Klan meetings, supporting racial segregation, and unwilling to put blacks in positions of political power.

The book deals with Scout coming to terms with her father's changed attitude and reconciling her childhood and adult views of him.

Author Harper Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman prior to To Kill A Mockingbird, but it had been rejected by publishers. She then expanded on a section in the book about Scout recounting her childhood into what became Mockingbird.

 

Much like Scout, fans are chagrined at this new, flawed Atticus.

Says polytechnic student Beth Yap, 21: "It makes me feel so disillusioned because I love the Atticus who stands up for the helpless, even though he is already living life comfortably and doesn't need to deliver justice for fame or profit."

Law student Yu Peiyi, 22, who studied Mockingbird in secondary school, cannot accept it either.

"I cannot envision anybody in their 50s to hold so strongly a conviction in equality, only to renounce it when they are older, particularly when he held on to that conviction so firmly and strongly amid an overbearingly racist society."

Local author Felix Cheong, 49, prefers to wait and see.

He points out that since the sequel was written before Mockingbird, the supposed racist Atticus Finch was probably Lee's first conception of the character.

"I haven't read it yet, but I'm keen to find out exactly how Atticus does a complete turnaround and, most importantly, how it affects the close relationship he has with Scout.

Like Cheong, liberal arts undergraduate Anurak Saelaow Hao, 22, prefers to reserve judgment till he has read the book, but feels that Atticus' change is "a valid transformation, even if it does seem to come a little out of nowhere".

He adds: "I think there's a certain degree of exploitation of Harper Lee going on and, as a writer myself, I can understand why she'd choose not to release it until now."

After a stroke in 2007, Lee was forced to sell her flat in New York and move into a nursing home back in Alabama. In February, when Watchman was announced, the Internet exploded with rumours that Lee was forced and pressured into publishing Watchman, after claiming for years that she had no interest in publishing another book.

Officials have since visited her and declared that she is sane and capable of making her own decisions.

Theories showing that Atticus was a racist all along have surfaced recently in light of the controversy. Former law professor Katie Rose Guest Pryal wrote a 2010 paper on the flaws in Atticus' character, showing a severe lack of empathy for the black man he defends.

In her words: "Neither the jury nor the audience of the novel have learnt anything about Tom: where he lives, what his family is like, how he treats his wife and children and others in his daily life."

Similarly, South Carolina State University literature professor Angela Shaw-Thornburg describes Atticus' attitude towards justice as "paternalistic and downright accommodationist".

This also explains why Mockingbird was so much better received by the white community than the blacks, as they felt unrepresented in the novel they saw as about a man with a white male saviour complex.

But why are fans so upset?

Dr Gilbert Yeoh, 47, a senior lecturer in English Literature at the National University of Singapore whose research covers 20th-century literature and modernism, said: "I believe readers still hold a strong sentimental attachment to the novel, since they read it in their younger days and it is told from the point of view from a young adolescent (Scout), who they would have related to.

"I advise modern readers to view it as a literary anachronism, and a time capsule of a more idyllic and innocent time with simpler politics, as opposed to today's complexities. Fictional characters are just that - fictional, and authors should be allowed to take artistic liberties with their works."

Poet Wong Su Ann, who penned the collection Equatorial Sunshine, says: "I appreciate the sinister spin to Atticus' character. People are often complicated and this may be a more realistic and nuanced portrayal of the man who was living in the American south in the 1960s."

At the time of writing, interviewees have not yet read the book, but plan on doing so eventually.

Sales-wise, bookstore chain Times has reported that the negative press has not affected its sales and have so far met its expectations.

Books Kinokuniya has also reported that its sales have not been affected by the controversy, having already sold 200 copies with sales continuing steadily.

For fans of the original novel then, it may be time to move on and accept that no one, not even fictional characters, is perfect, and that one cannot see the world through a child's eyes forever.

Said Mr Anurak: "Interestingly, Watchman provides a psychic parallel to the loss of childhood innocence seen in Mockingbird, when Scout realises her father isn't perfect. Perhaps Harper Lee was thinking, many years later, the same readers of Mockingbird are reading Watchman, just older and more disillusioned with the world, ready to face a more bitter novel of adulthood."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2015, with the headline 'Childhood hero turns out flawed'. Print Edition | Subscribe