I do realize that the passage of To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus defended Tom Robinson has been heavily analyzed elsewhere at this point. However, it seems like most people got the impression that Atticus's choice to give Tom Robinson a competent defense reflected a progressive view of race on his part (I certainly got that impression from studying that in lit class). This is obviously why Go Set a Watchman's portrayal of him was so controversial.

With that said, do we necessarily need to change our analysis of that passage based on the later book? How do you reconcile those two?

Given the complicated publication history behind Watchman (the fact that Harper Lee seems to have forgotten about it, the lack of clarity about when she decided to publish it, and the fact that Watchman was written before Mockingbird), is Harper Lee essentially flatly contradicting herself here? How did Harper Lee view Atticus at various points? For example, when she published Mockingbird, had she already forgotten about Watchman (and/or believed that she would never publish it) and therefore changed her view of Atticus?

There's a strongly related question about how much "authority" authors have to change an existing "canon" after the fact (particularly long after the fact), but that should be a separate question at a minimum and may or may not be the best fit for Stack Exchange.

Also strongly related (but not identical): Should Go Set a Watchman be read as a prequel, or an early draft?

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    "do we necessarily need to change our analysis of that passage". You can think of any work of art as the depiction of the world from a certain point of view. Watchman has a different point of view than Mockingbird. It's not wise to interpret any one point of view as a fact. Historians, in order to determine facts, use the historical method, which involves finding as many points of view as possible and comparing them to determine what really happened.
    – user111
    Feb 26, 2017 at 4:22
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    That said, only a superficial reading of To Kill a Mockingbird could lead to the belief that anyone had a progressive view of race in that book. An examination of Atticus' privilege, the power structures that remain in place, the moral that assuming things is wrong (which, by the way, addresses only a few of the underlying systems of racial injustice), would lead to the conclusion that Mockingbird does not address injustice. One of the strengths of Watchman is it points out what should have been common knowledge.
    – user111
    Feb 26, 2017 at 4:28

1 Answer 1


Aside from the debate over whether Atticus had a progressive view on race that Hamlet raised, the answer is no because they are two different Atticus Finches. In this answer, it is pointed out that Lee focused more on social tension in To Kill A Mockingbird than in Go Set A Watchman and therefore it is clear that the purpose of the novels is different. Also, here it is shown that a very key detail that affects the actions of Atticus was different. We, therefore, do not know whether the Atticus from Go Set A Watchman would have acted differently in different circumstances. Finally, they are two different people, this would be like analyzing Harry Potter because of an earlier draft. We can analyze each one individually as having different traits without that having an effect on the overall character interpretation. However, we can use thw two in conjunction, especially the changes to analyze the meaning and development of To Kill A Mockingbird and the thoughts of Harper Lee.

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