Romper

Harper Lee's Characters Were Flawed & That Made All The Difference To Me

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Pulitzer Prize winner and sayer of hard truths, Nelle Harper Lee, died earlier today, and the characters she created and brought to life are in my mind now more than ever. Mixed in with the universal truths Lee shared with us, she gave us characters who were moral and important. She harped on themes that, even today, in 2016, bear repeating. But most importantly, Harper Lee created characters who were human and flawed and imperfect. It was, in my opinion, her greatest gift to each generation who read her work — and especially to me.

Scout was impatient. Alexandra was superficial. Atticus was racist (and he wasn’t the only one). When I was young, I identified with Scout as a tomboyish peer and was drawn in by the dramatic themes of right and wrong in To Kill a Mockingbird. Last fall, I read Go Set A Watchman in the car while my son slept, and I was moved to tears. I felt Scout’s pain as she, now a woman, dealt with the unsettling light of truth that growing up brings. I will forever remember Lee through her characters because they are all flawed humans grappling with demons, and so am I.

When Scout says: “I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again,” it moved me to tears. She'd shaped her moral values around a man who she thought was the good and the light only to realize he was as deeply flawed as she.
Courtesy of Devin Kate Pope

In Go Set A Watchman, Scout has aged since the last time we met. She's 26 and still locked in on the idealistic, non-human version of her father. She's “complacent in her snug world.” And it all comes crashing down when she witnesses Atticus at the epicenter of a citizen’s council arranged to continue and increase segregation. It doesn’t stop with Atticus, though. She sees everyone who was such a deeply important part of the world she shaped in a new light. Lee wrote:

The answer was, quite clearly, yes; it had been under her nose the whole time. When Scout says: “I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again,” it moved me to tears. She'd shaped her moral values around a man who she thought was the good and the light only to realize he was as deeply flawed as she.

Like Scout, I'm a young woman and I live far away from my family. I'm figuring out who I am as I go, and it can be painful at times. The realization is sinking in that I will never feel "grown-up" in the way I thought about it when I was 11. Growing up has much more to do with loving the people in your life for all their bruises and warts, not in spite of them.

Scout's "failure" was human: She didn’t look beneath the surface because no one looks until it becomes necessary. She's confused and lost. She wants “a watchman to tell me this is what a man says, but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.” Growing up forces you to look at all the wrinkles and cavities and growths and warts on a person’s character. It’s unpleasant, but it’s truthful and liberating.

Courtesy of Devin Kate Pope

If Watchman had to be boiled down to one point, it would probably be that Atticus isn’t the spotless hero we thought. “Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch,“ and we all agreed. But that’s too easy, and Lee doesn’t leave room for any confusion in Watchman. Atticus is an old man when we return to Maycomb (or when we first arrive there — there's been much speculation surrounding Go Set A Watchman's timing) and he is passive and racist.

As I read through Watchman, my question became whether or not Lee’s characters will let their demons become their defining characteristic. That struggle is our struggle, that’s why Lee’s work provokes thought and interest. Lee herself must have seen her own flaws, and the flaws of those around her, in distinct clarity.

Mockingbird was set in the clear light of childhood thinking, Watchman was set in the murky darkness of adult truth. Isn’t it that very transition from childhood to adulthood that makes growing up painful? Our heroes can never stand up to the clear-cut picture we painted as children, because our heroes are human, too.

Even though Mockingbird is my favorite of Lee's books, Watchman was more moving to me when I read it. Like Scout, I'm a young woman and I live far away from my family. I'm figuring out who I am as I go, and it can be painful at times. The realization is sinking in that I will never feel "grown-up" in the way I thought about it when I was 11. Growing up has much more to do with loving the people in your life for all their bruises and warts, not in spite of them.

Reading Watchman helped me sort through my own demons because it reminded me that although the process of growing up can be painful, it's worthwhile. And the book definitely made my issues seem easy in comparison with Scout's. Unlike Scout, I'm also a parent. I see my young son and want him to know me as a real person, not a caricature of a hero. I don't know exactly how I'll attain that, but it starts with being real and present with him in a way that fits each age.

When I first read Mockingbird, I was a child and there was a certain level of clarity between the good guys and the bad guys. If I was reading more carefully, or if I go back and read it now, I’m sure I’ll see the shades of gray. These character flaws didn’t come out of nowhere – some argue that Atticus was always racist. Mockingbird was set in the clear light of childhood thinking, Watchman was set in the murky darkness of adult truth. Isn’t it that very transition from childhood to adulthood that makes growing up painful? Our heroes can never stand up to the clear-cut picture we painted as children, because our heroes are human, too. In the last pages of Watchman, Scout says that everything is "bearable somehow." Her uncle replies that “It’s bearable, Jean Louise, because you are your own person now.” And it's true.