You know the story: A young lawyer named Atticus Finch is appointed to defend a black man against rape charges in Depression-era Alabama. His defense is vigorous, but ultimately futile (at least in the courtroom). The forces of racism arrayed against him were simply insurmountable. In the end, the accused and the accuser die violently and nothing really changes.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for its portrayal of rape, racism, and coming-of-age at the precise time when America was wrestling with those same issues (and in some ways, still is). At its center was Atticus Finch, a heroic and inspiring character who would provide a moral model for a generation or two—or maybe ever since. He exists today in our cultural consciousness as one of the most beloved literary figures in American literature.
But what if Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird were published today? Would #MeToo stain Atticus Finch as just another patriarchal white man who didn’t believe a woman who came forward with a terrible story about rape? Would he be a hero or a villain in our collective imagination? (Let’s save #BlackLivesMatter for another essay about the collision of movements.)
There’s no question that Finch unmasks the odd and libidinous Mayella Ewell as a liar, along with her drunkard father. He isn’t just doing his lawyerly duty; he believes Tom Robinson because he knows him. The angry people of Maycomb have no interest in due process … a lynching is thwarted. Despite plenty of evidence, the jury convicts the accused, Tom Robinson. Nobody’s sense of justice is shaken more than Atticus Finch’s.
Some things haven’t changed—juries don’t always please us. But some things have changed enormously. It’s not difficult to imagine #MeToo protesters shouting from the gallery of Maycomb’s fictional courtroom, or pink protesters on the courthouse steps picketing an obvious case of a woman’s alleged re-victimization, or Ewell supporters hectoring Atticus and his family in the town diner.
Thus the question: Would Atticus Finch be seen differently today because he expertly poked holes in a woman’s rape allegations? Would he be compared less to Clarence Darrow and more to Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer? Would perceptions of his morality suffer?
Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t intend to explore sexual assault to the same degree that it explored racism. And, like Civil War statues and Huckleberry Finn, it was a snapshot of a certain moment in history that shouldn’t be held up against our current sensibilities. It shows where we’ve been more than where we’re going. It’s difficult to imagine a nation that would relegate To Kill a Mockingbird to the ash heap because it arose from a period that was not our brightest.
Writers know they cannot control the message that readers perceive. But as someone who believes books contain our memory, good and bad, I wonder how a 2018 #MeToo reader might see this classic in a different light than Harper Lee ever intended, and whether it still speaks to who we are.