In the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch clearly states “All men are created equal” (KM). Throughout the preceding scenes of the film, Atticus appears to reflect this belief—at least to some degree. However, other viewers have a different take on him entirely. For instance, Katherine Nichols published an article on Jezebel titled “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise.” There, she provides a detailed description of how she viewed Atticus in both To Kill a Mockingbird (book version) and Go Set a Watchman. She does a brilliant job providing examples that clearly validate her understanding of Atticus as a racist, and concludes the article with a strong statement saying, “Mockingbird Atticus is too easy to read as virtuous—a brave individual, not strong enough on his own to make any headway against inequality. The truth is that he never meant to” and she’s right. With that being said, I must admit that prior to reading Nichols’s article, I too was guilty of seeing Atticus as an almighty do-gooder of his time; somehow being a noble, virtue-driven egalitarian while surrounded by individuals of lesser quality than he. While that is no longer my exact interpretation of him, I still believe the man deserves an immense amount of credit. So who is Atticus Finch really? If he is racist, can he still be perceived as a role-model?
I’ll start with the latter. Can Atticus still be viewed as a role-model? The answer is yes, but a better question would be: how? Well, because everyone is prejudice. Some clearly more than others, and most may not even be aware that they are at all. I’m not saying that’s how it ought to be, but I am saying that’s how it is. Gail Price-Wise, a graduate from Harvard School of Public Health appears to agree, as she also says, “We all have prejudice” (McAteer). The reason Atticus’s prejudice isn’t so apparent in To Kill a Mockingbird is at least in part because the film is being filtered through Scout’s perspective. What that tells us is not only that Atticus must be exceedingly diligent as a parent to have shielded his children from the obscene racist norms that take place within the town at this time, but he also made sure his own prejudicial beliefs aren’t intruding on his children’s ability to form their own perspective of the world. In contrast, we can clearly see how the Ewell family differs on these principles.
The bottom line is—and I think Price-Wise says it best—“…Individuals differ based on how they were raised, their personal life experiences, their education, socio-economic status, whether they have traveled, and the personality they were born with” (McAteer). Yes, Atticus is a flawed man. No, Atticus is not the epitome of all that is good. But, given the time-period and norms of Maycomb, Atticus still deserves to be a role-model, and he has been, especially to Jean. Even in chapter seventeen of Go Set a Watchman, when Jean verbally lashes out at Atticus; he simply chooses to accommodate her by staying calm and polite. He doesn’t raise his voice to her, and he surely doesn’t strike her (as Bob Ewell has done to his daughter). It takes immense self-control not to retaliate in someway, but he neglects to make the matter worse. So who is Atticus Finch? He is an imperfect man, with imperfect beliefs, but he may just be—a perfect father.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.
McAteer, Ollie. “Actor Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in the film ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, 1962.”Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images, 19 Feb. 2016, http://metro.co.uk/2016/02/19/to-kill-a-mockingbird-author-nelle-harper-lee-dies-aged-89-5706822/. Accessed 24 October 2016.
Mitchell, Robert. “Fighting Prejudice by Admitting It.” Harvardgazette, 05 Nov. 2013, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/11/fighting-prejudice-by-admitting-it/. Accessed 24 October 2016.
Movieclips. “All Men Are Created Equal – To Kill a Mockingbird (6/10) Movie CLIP (1962) HD.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 16 June 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x6njs-cGUE. Web. 24 October 2016.
Nichols, Katherine. “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise.” Jezebel, 20 July 2015, http://jezebel.com/atticus-was-always-a-racist-why-go-set-a-watchman-is-n-1718996096. Accessed 24 October 2016.
To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. By Horton Foote. Perf. Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. Universal-International, 1962.