With an instinctive distaste for the mutation of characters I’d grown up with, I began reading Go Set a Watchman, the manuscript written by Harper Lee, author of the much beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. I told myself that it was not Atticus Finch, at least not the Atticus Finch who accompanied me to my school and college dorms, not the one who nestled beside me on those desperately home-sick nights, assuring me that “sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down …” or the one who explained that the way to understand another person’s point of view is to “climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I carried my dog-eared copy of To Kill a Mockingbird to places I had never been to and places I was familiar with, believing that there was a little bit of Finch in all people I met.
The newly released Atticus Finch is a man I do not know. He occupies the body of the man I have never forgotten, in a place I remember—Mayfield, Alabama—along with people who are similar, but not entirely the same. Finch is older but much less wiser, portrayed as a polite segregationist. Jean Louise is in her twenties and is no longer the spunky and impulsive six-year-old Scout displaying the frightening careless courage of young children who are not quite used to serious consequences. Sometimes the new Finch says the same things that he once did, but without the conviction I was accustomed to.
Yet, it occurred to me, that before I raced to kill this re-introduced Finch, I needed to climb into his skin, to see the world through his lens.
The release of Harper Lee’s first draft of a timeless bestseller is perhaps a droll commentary on the subjectivity with which we view events that shape the way we think.
We see this play out in our lives frequently. The same event can be seen in diametrically different ways.
Take Donald Trump’s pronouncements that Mexicans “are bringing [to America] drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists.” What seemed to me to be obvious racist paranoia, a Mercury News letter to the editor reframed as “a hurricane of fresh air and truth. It takes a dark horse like Donald Trump with all his mega fortune, courage and love of country to accomplish this.”
I’ve encountered the same black and white polarization to news of the world very often. No matter how fallacious and heinous I think an argument is there are always going to be some people who will adopt it as their truth.
The thing I’ve come to understand is that the freedom of our press/blog/points of view on the Internet allows us readers to validate and sustain our theories by reading from sources that agree with our belief systems, our values, and our biases leading to even more divergence of ideologies.
Recently at a dinner with some visitors from India I quoted from an article in The Economist, which talked about a fence being constructed by India at its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal migrants, and I was soundly chided for being “brainwashed by the American media.”
And yet it’s not even that we cull our own sources of information to validate what we believe. It’s also the way we read (and what we watch on television). The subjectivity of our reading process is colored by the aggregation of our experiences. The act of reading, then, works out to be a refinement of our world view.
With the two disparate and distinct Atticus Finches, given life by the same author, it seems allegorical to the way we are continually urged to re-code and re-consider our truths and moralities. Therefore, I reason, both the Finches are necessary to form that composite image that Lee imagined.
The Finch that actor Gregory Peck portrayed was brewed to heart-warming perfection, but the Finch of Go Set a Watchman could be a more granular representation of who we are; an illustration of how we could derive and evolve from who we were.
Jaya Padmanabhan, Editor