Please note: this article makes references to plot elements in Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee.

Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s seminal novel To Kill A Mockingbird, has been revealed as a segregationist in Go Set A Watchman, the eagerly awaited sequel.

Written in the 1950s, before Lee had the idea for To Kill A Mockingbird, the novel follows an older Scout Finch who returns to her home town of Maycomb, Alabama. Early reviews of the book, to the shock of many readers, have released details of the plot indicating that Atticus shows concern in his old age at the racial integration he sees become more and more prominent. This characterisation is a far cry from the ‘saintly’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, the central plot of which sees Finch defending a black man from false accusations of rape.

The story has famously inspired Lawyers to choose their career path, and such a change in Finch’s story may cause many great unease. History and HSPS applicants should consider how this portrayal of Finch more accurately reflects the realities of racism in the deep South, and North America generally, during the 1950s. While To Kill A Mockingbird portrayed an unproblematic, morally simple Finch battling against racism, Go Set A Watchman instead shows a perhaps more realistic, morally compromised and complex Finch.

Students interested in Politics courses should consider how much of the dismay levied in regards to this news focuses on the damage done to Atticus’s character, rather than at the brutal realities of racism the Lee portrays during the civil rights era; two comments in the New York Times read “It’s sad to think that Atticus’s character is going to be tarnished” and “I’m not reading it, I want Atticus to remain the Atticus that I adore.”

English students should be encouraged to read To Kill A Mockingbird in light of this new information. Kara FC Holloway, professor of English and Law at Duke University, has commented that “it will force an interesting conversation about — if this is really Atticus — what have our own desires done to the character, and what is the literary truth?” 

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