Summary and Analysis
Hank leaves Atticus alone with Jean Louise. Atticus says he heard from Jack that she is upset about the citizens’ council. His reasons for being there, he says, are his concern for states’ rights and his dislike of the NAACP. Atticus proves that his views and Jean Louise’s are not as different as she thinks when he asks her how she felt about the recent Supreme Court decision: She objected to the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule state authority even though she didn’t object to the ruling itself. Like her father, she cares a great deal about states’ rights.
As they continue talking, they realize that their difference lies in their perception of blacks. Jean Louise wants them to be granted the full rights of citizenship whereas Atticus worries that doing this too quickly will devastate the existing social order. Clearly he feels threatened by the possibility of a world in which blacks and whites are fully integrated and considers the NAACP’s efforts an attack on his way of life.
For Jean Louise, the realization that her father has adopted some of the racist attitudes of his community is intolerable. She lashes out at him, comparing him to Hitler because he treats blacks as subhuman. She tells him she despises him, and he responds that he loves her.
Atticus’ attitude toward race has been the subject of much controversy. Whereas the Atticus portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird shows no sign of harboring racist attitudes, the Atticus portrayed in Go Set a Watchman is a more complicated and nuanced figure. He still fights for racial equality, but he also condescendingly compares blacks to children and describes them as a civilization in infancy. He treats individual black people better than others in his community do, but he isn’t committed to standing against the systemic injustices they face.
Jean Louise has always thought of racial issues as a binary: A person is either for racial equality or against it, either a non-racist or a racist. (Upon learning that Atticus holds attitudes she considers racist, Jean Louise lumps him with Grady O’Hanlon in her mind.) But Atticus resists Jean Louise’s binary. He is at once admirable and reprehensible, at once a hero and a villain. This blurring of boundaries is something Atticus himself encourages when he asks Jean Louise to judge Hank kindly. He says, “Some men who cheat their wives out of grocery money wouldn’t think of cheating the grocer.”
Racism, this chapter shows, is a difficult enemy to draw a boundary around. Racist attitudes don’t exist only in people like Grady O’Hanlon, who obviously despises another race. Good, honorable people like Atticus can also hold attitudes and act in ways that are subtly influenced by racist thought. Even Jean Louise, because of her commitment to states’ rights, has trouble celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn segregation, and most modern readers would consider her attitude racist. Racism isn’t always immediately apparent; it is also systemic and insidious.
To conclude from this chapter that Atticus is a racist is an over-simplistic reading of the text, good for headlines but lacking the kind of nuance Harper Lee has so carefully constructed. More often than not, Atticus is simply asking questions of his daughter in this chapter, allowing her to make assumptions about what he believes instead of imparting his beliefs. As the final chapters will reveal, Atticus’ motivation here is partly to shatter his daughter’s idealistic view of him and to allow her to see him as human and flawed.