I’m not one to usually go along with all the hype, when a new bestselling book is published, or film is released. (I’m uncomfortable joining in, as part of a mob, I think, and generally make a conscious effort not to be gripped by fads and the sensations surrounding them. Despite this, I was keenly anticipating last week’s release of Harper Lee’s new book ‘Go Set a Watchman’, sequel of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and so bought it a day or two after it came out. I’d tried my best to avoid all reviews of the book before purchasing, so that any secrets and surprises to be sprung would occur as the author intended.
But with ‘Go Set a Watchman’, it was impossible to avoid the news that Atticus Finch, father to Scout and an all round ‘good nut’ in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, has turned out in this new publication, not to be all he was cracked up to be. (Sorry, for the nutty pun!)
Atticus Finch. The ultimate literary hero. A man who is all at once honest, wise, intelligent, knowledgeable, bold, empathetic, genuine, caring, beautiful, successful and (crucially) moral. In other words, everything you want in a hero. Or rather, everything you want in a ‘good’ character, as most heroes, for the sake not just authenticity, but also human interest, must necessarily have some personal weaknesses or frailties to overcome, or endure. But not Atticus. In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, he has not a single flaw. And it is interesting to read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ with that in mind. (I won’t go on about it here, in a bid not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, but I will say I’m very pleased it has finally been published.)
Once, a few years ago, after having read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ I wondered if there was anyone else in literature who could compare with Atticus, in terms of goodness, and so began compiling a Top 10 list of ‘goodies’ I had encountered in fiction. (Just for fun!)
Joe Granger, the blacksmith in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ was on the list. Brother-in-law (and father figure) to Pip, there can be no doubt he was conceived by Dickens to represent a good man; kind, honest, trusting and loyal to the core, even when horribly wronged. But, I reckoned, he couldn’t quite match up to Atticus, because he certainly has his weaknesses. For one thing, he allows himself to be mistreated, hen-pecked (and possibly even cuckolded) by his wife. He buries his feelings deep within himself and in doing so fails to stand up for himself or for Pip, the child in his care.
But I’m sure when Dickens wrote of Joe, he was trying in every way to come up with the best possible character he could think of. Joe’s repression would have been considered dignified restraint to Dickens’ original, Victorian audience, and therefore a virtue. And this raises a problem. What standards are we to use when we judge characters (fictional or otherwise) from a bygone era? Are we to judge them by today’s standards? Or do we need to consider them according to the moralities and social norms of the age in which they belong? In the case of Joe, he was a common, uneducated blacksmith in Victorian England. Could he have behaved any better?
There is another problem we encounter when judging the actions of fictional characters, especially when what we learn about them is told to us in first person narratives, such as ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Although the protagonists do tend to be present whenever anything noteworthy occurs, there are still necessarily lots of interactions between the characters that the narrator would not have seen. Especially when the narrator is recounting their childhood memories. We can’t know, for instance, what Joe says to his wife when Pip is out of earshot. He could have been discretely supportive (or rampantly sadistic)m but we can’t know for sure.
The creation of a top ten list of ‘good’ people, raises the much more juicy and more complex question of who are the best (or worst) literary antiheroes? The question is more complex because, to be wicked, a person must also possess a range of ‘positive’ qualities, strengths or charms, which give them the power to behave immorally. And complex too because we must ask what motivates a person in the first place to act reprehensibly.
There are also far more bad (or flawed) characters in literature than good. Can we say that one is worse than any of the others? Also, what about characters who change their ways in the end or have been misunderstood the whole way through. At what point of their lives are we to judge them? If they live a short life, is that not so bad? And what events or genetic coding has shaped their characters? And again, can someone who acts in cruelly in a Shakespeare play, be judged by the same criterion we would use for a contemporary character?
Nice to live in a world of Atticuses and Joes, but much more intriguing if you throw in a Perchorin (from A Hero of Our Time), or a de Valmont (from Les Liaisons dangereuses).