I was surprised by Malcolm Gladwell‘s recent New Yorker article about To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Is it fair to judge the actions and sensibilities of characters in a novel from a different time by the standards of today?
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, as seen through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout, was willing to stand up in court and defend a black man against the charge of raping a white woman — an unpopular move and one that was doomed to failure. Mr. Gladwell seems to be arguing that Atticus Finch shouldn’t be held up as a hero because his defense largely rested on asking the jury to make moral distinctions rather than racial distinctions, and because he accepted the reality of the status quo in his small Southern town. Mr. Gladwell thinks Atticus should have been angry at the jury’s unjust verdict although he would have known from the start what the outcome would be, because he knew the racial prejudice of the jury. He faults Atticus for being too tolerant of his fellow townspeople’s intolerance, and seems to miss the point of the book almost entirely in his zeal to present it in a new light.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. I think it stands up well almost 50 years later as a testament to a single individual’s principled attempt to act as he would have others act.