Novel Thoughts blog

How Atticus Finch Went Off the Rails

August 24, 2015 1:55 pm | 5 Comments


More than a few have told me to let go of the subjects of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. The books are published. It’s history now. Atticus Finch is a fictional character. And who cares? I care because this involves an artist and her art, her intellectual property, her masterpiece.

So, how did Atticus Finch go off the rails, go from being a man of integrity to just another flawed human being, propped up and then smacked down? Only one person knows for sure, and she is almost ninety and living in a nursing home in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

As for Atticus Finch, here’s the most likely explanation for his metamorphosis from hero to bigot.

Authors’ characters often undergo change, sometimes radical change, based on how a story develops, editor input, scenes where a character is judged to be unrealistic or inconsistent, or the plain old quest for drama and reader interest. Jay Gatsby is said to have undergone big changes, as did some of Dickens characters (Great Expectations comes to mind); more common than rare.

So what? I love a good mystery, so let’s start by stipulating that Harper Lee composed the bones of Go Set a Watchman before To Kill A Mockingbird. What if the character of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman was closely based on Harper Lee’s father, A. C. Lee, but as Watchman evolved into Mockingbird, with Lee’s editor’s encouragement, the Atticus Finch character diverged from her father and became the Atticus Finch we read about in Mockingbird, and see in the film, less A. C. Lee and more an invented character, though still retaining the author’s memory of A. C. Lee’s noble core? Partly in emulation of Harper Lee, this is exactly what happened with T. A. Cole in my novel, Terrapin, with Cole having qualities my father had, along with inventions that made him different than my dad. Cole started out closer to my father, but in the published novel invention was more prominent.

If this is what happened—based on subsequent events, I think it did—then once Mockingbird was published, how could Harper Lee publish Watchman, knowing, as she did, that Watchman’s Atticus Finch isn’t the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird? She couldn’t publish Watchman without radically changing how Atticus Finch reacts to matters of justice and civil rights, a foundational theme in Mockingbird.

Some argue the pre-civil rights biases of Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch are inherent in the patriarchal (their word) Finch, except that they aren’t. Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch puts his life on the line protecting Tom Robinson at the jail, goes to Tom’s home in a proscribed part of town, allows his own children to attend Calpurnia’s church services, puts his reputation on the line with his aggressive (way over the top for those times) questioning of Mayella Violet Ewell in court. These aren’t the actions of a closet bigot that’s motivated by an abstract sense of justice; not the man who becomes the Atticus Finch of Watchman.

Atticus Finch started out as A. C. Lee and became a different man as Mockingbird was conceived and published. That’s why Harper Lee never published Go Set a Watchman, not for over fifty years, not while her sister and best friend was alive, not until she was all alone with new voices in her old ears.

Decide for yourself, but don’t ignore the last fifty years and the facts.

(Note: read a previous piece by T.M. Doran,  “Why the ‘Watchman’ doesn’t add up”, in the Detroit Free Press here.)

T. M. Doran

T. M. Doran

T. M. Doran is a writer, educator, and consultant. An adjunct professor of civil engineering at Lawrence Technological University, he is the author of the novels Toward the Gleam, Terrapin, and Iota. You can follow him on Facebook.

Tags: Atticus Finch Go Set a Watchman Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird


  1. August 24, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    I agree with your theory but sadly wish I had never read Go Set A Watchman

  2. August 24, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    I read the novel Terrapin. Good story, so I am familiar with this author. But I do not entirely accept the premise of this article. The situation is much more nuanced and complicated than it has been portrayed. We keep seeing the word “bigot” used for Atticus. But words matter….maybe not to some on the left these days but they actually do matter to anyone who claims to think seriously. A bigot is someone who does not tolerate the opinions of anyone else.That does not describe Atticus Finch, in either book. Part of what he does in the second book is try to get his daughter to think for herself and NOT just accept all of his opinions. He asks her if she would want a certain black man she knew growing up to be in power in government. His point is that at that moment in history southern blacks had been oppressed to the point that there were not yet capable of those responsibilities. That was the hard truth, not bigotry.
    But today we like black and white bumper sticker slogans instead of critical thinking. Show me the examples of Atticus’ bigotry if you can find them. He allowed the raging racsist to speak at a town meeting. That racist was wrong and that angered Scout. But allowing another to speak is part of our constitution, a part that is being swept under the rug today. Some on one side of the political spectrum don’t want you to be even allowed to speak. THOSE are the bigots. I am glad I read the novel because I do like to think, and so far it is not illegal.

  3. August 24, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    I’ve just finished reading Go Set A Watchman and this is the way I see it. If H.Lee had not written it, we would never have been graced with her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird. The former was refused by the publishers . Lee was told to go back to her desk and make Scout 6 years old. I am thrilled that she finally published ‘Watchman’, her draft of Mockingbird. Many great masters tossed their drafts.Artists such as Michelangelo & Van Gogh , just to mention two, did away with their unwanted sketches.
    And if any of their early drawings, ‘premiers souffles ‘are found, well they would be regarded as priceless artifacts.Museums will display such sketches and their many errors or ‘les repenties ‘ under bullet proof glass .
    Go Set a Watchman does not tarnish Atticus Finch of TKMockingbird. Yes, like Scout, I did see Mr,Finch as a god and today , like the adult Scout, I see him as a human being. Her father allowed her to finally come into her own. He encouraged his daughter to express herself as she willed and respected her for it. Scout found her identity. Therefore, according to me, what’s important is her metamorphoses and the freedom she was allowed to find her identity. . I am thrilled that she decides to stay on in Maycomb for her friends as well as Maycomb will need her when they will get it wrong .”They don’t need you when they’re right.” ..p.273.
    And when the time comes that Maycomb needs her , well I believe that Atticus Finch will be her right- hand man. All we need now is for H.Lee to publish a third novel !

  4. August 25, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Happy to have provoked this spirited discussion.

  5. August 31, 2015 at 10:08 am

    I think the truth of why Watchman has finally surfaced, when Ms Lee is in her dotage in a nursing home, left pretty much to the devices of her attorney, lies closer to the controlling aspect of this greedy woman than to the desires and intentions of the author. Just my practical opinion. Nothing more, nothing less.

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