Viewing Atticus through today’s eyes

To Kill a Mockingbird has long been my favorite book. I’ve become less vocal about it, however, as Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama, is reevaluated through modern sensibilities. 

The hero has been taken down from his pedestal. Critics on the left now fault Atticus for being misguided about preaching the goodness in everyone, even the racist villain Bob Ewell, and blind to the grave dangers of racial hatred. 

So I was curious to see how writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Social Network) updated Harper Lee’s classic for a present-day audience. I saw Sorkin’s stage adaptation in its recent run at the Nederlander Theatre. 

Sorkin gives more voice to the two main Black characters, Tom Robinson, the accused, and Calpurnia, the housekeeper for the widowed Atticus and his two children. Calpurnia speaks out against Atticus’s philosophy about putting oneself in another’s shoes. Racists should be opposed, not understood, she argues.

With a new perspective on Atticus, I’m jotting down questions in case my book group might be interested in reading the novel. 

• Presumably author Harper Lee intended Atticus to be heroic, but are there suggestions that she knew he is naive? Specifically, does she show us anything good about Bob Ewell to justify Atticus’s belief in the goodness in every person? How efficacious is Atticus’s philosophy?

• Some critics have called Atticus a racist because he reluctantly represents Tom Robinson and does not activity try to change a racist system. To not be a racist, is it enough to treat everyone considerately?

• Does Atticus’s thinking change by the end of the book?

• Is a novel about a white savior out of place today, and should To Kill a Mockingbird be retired from school curriculums? As the Sun-Times critic said about the play, “White people don’t need reassurance that they are good. We need reassessment of just what we’re willing to do to combat white supremacy.”

*****

It wasn’t so much the character of Atticus that made me love To Kill a Mockingbird as that of Scout (aka Jean Louise), his daughter and saucy narrator of the book. Scout, who is five when the action begins and nine when it concludes, narrates the novel with charm and intelligence. The book is not only about race but also about a young girl’s growing up in a society that expects her to be “a lady.”

Scout passes present-day inspection better than Atticus. Rebellion against the constraints of femininity is even more acceptable today than it was in 1935. Scout spends her free time with boys, her brother Jem and their friend Dill. She prefers overalls to dresses, resists her aunt’s attempts to make a lady of her, and raises her fists at boys. 

The stage adaptation is no longer a young girl’s story. While Scout is still prominent, she shares the narration with Jem and Dill and cedes the protagonist role to Atticus. I understand that a 2½-hour adaptation can’t include everything in a novel, but I missed a few incidents featuring Scout.

*****

Despite modern reservations, To Kill a Mockingbird remains America’s favorite novel on many lists, including PBS’s Great American Read in 2018. It is the most-read book in classrooms.

Sorkin’s adaptation was the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history. It is now on national tour and will also resume this summer in another Broadway theater with a new cast.

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