Why is nobody talking about Watchman’s second shocking revelation?
Contemporary American literature enthusiasts are nearing the peak of their months long wait, to a climax that’s been steadily building since February, when a new Harper Lee manuscript was discovered to exist. But in anticipation of Go Set a Watchman’s looming publication, advance reviews and an early sample chapter have cast a new light on once-beloved characters.
The news generating the most controversy has to do with the fact that Atticus Finch is now an old, cranky, run-of-the-mill racist. He brags about having attended KKK meetings and admits that he’s not too keen on racial integration. Once the living embodiment of social justice and moral fortitude, this new Atticus has legions of die-hard Mockingbird devotees disappointed, all of them taking to the Internet to express grave dissatisfaction with their hero’s demotion in character.
But while Watchman has generated much controversy regarding this unfortunate change in perspective, readers and critics have been all but silent about the book’s most shocking revelation: that Atticus Finch is actually a robot.
Early in the novel, readers are given hints that something doesn’t quite connect. Atticus complains, “My gears are all rusted,” and at first we’re led to believe he’s alluding to the difficulties of old age. But as the story progresses, his speech takes on a style uncharacteristic of the character we’ve been taught to know and love.
“My positronic core is havin’ trouble quantifyin’ my sensory input,” he tells his daughter Jean Louise late in Chapter Seven. A perplexed Scout asks her father, “Dad, what are you talking about?” but Atticus quickly changes the subject, going off on a nonsensical rant about the perils of integrated busing, leaving readers to scratch their heads in confusion.
But Atticus’s words and behavior becomes increasingly deranged, and by the end of the novel, it’s clear that Finch isn’t a human being at all. He’s a robot, and he’s malfunctioning. The Finchs spend the rest of the story in a race against time, searching hopelessly for Atticus’s enigmatic creator, an unnamed scientist known only through whispered rumors as Dr. Mekanix.
Atticus is ultimately unable to find Mekanix, nor a cure to the techno-virus ravaging his neural net, and the book closes as the robot collapses in a heap of bolts and sparks, all while a dazed Scout looks on in apparent calm, wondering if her lack of appropriate emotion at her father’s demise might not be a sign that she, too, is a robot.
And yet despite Ms. Lee’s abrupt departure into a realm of artificial intelligence and science fiction, much of the reaction to Go Set a Watchman remains fixed on the controversies of race, of Atticus Finch’s blatant distaste of civil rights issues prominently at the forefront of both novels. Yes, it’s disturbing, certainly unlike the Atticus Finch who championed Tom Robinson’s innocence in Mockingbird. But why aren’t audiences reacting as strongly to the even more surprising news that Atticus is a robot?
Maybe it’s because at some level it makes sense. Maybe it’s easier to accept that the Atticus we knew and loved from Mockingbird was the same moral champion that he’s always been, that his new bigoted disposition is nothing more than a sentient machine’s infection with a mysterious computer virus.
Because what’s the alternative? Are we as readers really supposed to assume that even our greatest white fictionalized heroes are complicit in the biases and privileges of institutionalized racism? Are we supposed to reevaluate the longstanding legacy of white goodness and racial progress?
No, it’s clear that Atticus Finch was a robot, and he was sick. His primary programming had been compromised. That’s why he was talking and acting like that. And while it’s hard to get past the mental image of Atticus Finch berating an entire people, just remember: you can’t judge an entire literary history based off of the unfortunate new revelations of one robot’s descent into madness.