From Saint To Racist

What does the new Atticus Finch mean for English curriculums

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To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch, a middle-aged white lawyer with two children (Jem and Scout), defends a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Despite Robinson getting falsely convicted, Finch manages to finally defame the man who set Robinson up: Bob Ewell.

Go Set a Watchman

Atticus Finch's daughter, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, returns to her hometown on an annual two-week visit. During her visit, she eventually realizes that her father is not the same morally perfect man she remembers from her youth- in fact, everything he believes in is contrary to what he taught her. With the help of her uncle Jack, Scout comes to the conclusion that she has put her father on a pedestal and that she has pinned her own beliefs on him.
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So what does the new Atticus Finch mean for English curriculums? After all, To Kill a Mockingbird is taught across the country in high schools, teaching students to stand up for what is right and to have hope. If the very character that set those high standards doesn't follow them, then how are students expected to learn from them? Moreover, Go Set a Watchman turned into To Kill a Mockingbird for a reason- clearly Watchman won't be nearly as lasting as Mockingbird is. On the contrary, Go Set a Watchman, when taught with To Kill a Mockingbird, actually expands upon Mockingbird's strong message of hope- it shows a more complex character, which provides more opportunities to learn, and it creates discussions about race in the classroom.


In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch's character description can be boiled down to one word: perfect. He always does the right thing and he defends his moral beliefs. He is the literary pinnacle of morality. Go Set a Watchman completely drags this idea through the mud- instead, he's a clear racist and not a role model at all. By revealing this depth to Finch, however, Harper Lee turns a simple character into a complex one. With this one change, Finch steps off the pedestal and becomes a genuine human- he's flawed, not faultless, and people can actually learn from him and grow.
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Society views the world in a very black and white way- either you're bad or you're good. Either you're racist or you're not. The two can't intermix either- good people can't be racist and vice versa. This view is even backed up in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is a good man and therefore, he cannot be racist. Conversely, Go Set a Watchman tosses this view aside with a racist Finch and through this, the book facilitates a long overdue conversation about race. When combined with Mockingbird, Watchman allows teachers and students to discuss racism and what it means to be a moral person, broadening their potentially narrow mindsets.

Offers a Chance to Change Perspectives

To Kill a Mockingbird was published over half a century ago but it's still being taught in classrooms today because it teaches students how to stay positive and hopeful in the darkest of times- a lesson that will supposedly last much longer than the messages Go Set a Watchman teaches. However, Watchman teaches a lesson that is just as important as Mockingbird's- it teaches students what it means to be a principled person. Basically, Mockingbird's Atticus Finch was nothing more than a role model, someone that students could only compare themselves to. Watchman's Finch is complicated, someone that students can see themselves in and can learn from. Together, the new and improved Finch can help students change their worldview for good.