“Go Set a Watchman” & Reader Ownership of Characters

Today, the sequel to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been released. After the controversy, in which many alleged that Lee did not even wish to release Watchman, there has sprung up a new controversy entirely, over the identity of Atticus Finch.

Those who do not want to be spoiled on the novel should stop reading – and also probably not go on Facebook or read the NYTimes. This stuff is everywhere.

Still with me? Good. Atticus Finch is now…well, violently racist. Attends KKK meetings, rants to his daughter about desegregation, the whole nine yards. And this is causing some legitimate grief in the reader community. Finch has inspired generations to stand against injustice. Many say they attended law school because of him. How many, now, are braver and stronger people because they read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And, to be frank, do they have a right to feel betrayed that Finch’s character is so changed in “Go Set a Watchman”?

No, and yes, and no again. The characters come from Lee. She created them, and their evolution is up to her. She is the final arbiter of how Atticus Finch changes over the course of his lifetime. And yet, at the same time, Finch has become a cultural force beyond Lee – because that is how art works. Art is not created in a vacuum of the creator and the work itself, it is created with the intent of being viewed, and of sparking something in the viewer’s soul. In this, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was wildly successful. Readers do not own Atticus Finch and his views in the way Lee does…but they own the cultural moment he sparked.

And yet again, we see the betrayal that comes from the fall of a hero. Those who are set on a pedestal often “fail” us, given none of the privacy that we would have to indulge in weakness, fear, cowardice, and greed. Because Atticus Finch is now so racist, we feel that our own bravery and pursuit of justice was built on a lie.

And that, dear readers, is up to us to fix. Characters can be an inspiration, and yet be terribly flawed. Characters can be an inspiration, and later act in ways we hope we never do. We are still the people we became because of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and we have the choice to remain those people no matter what occurs in “Go Set a Watchman.”

Yes, sometimes our heroes fail us. But isn’t the point of heroes to inspire us to be heroes ourselves?

-M

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