The passing of Harper Lee (yesterday, as I write and post this) has got me thinking about her iconic character, small-town attorney Atticus Finch. Finch was first introduced to readers in To Kill a Mockingbird, and, of course, brought to life by Gregory Peck in the film adaptation.
To many people, Finch embodied the notions of doing the right thing and standing up for justice. He also embodied the principles of being a skilled attorney – so much so that the University of Alabama’s School of Law created the Harper Lee Prize for best legal fiction. He loomed larger than life, if I may use that expression.
And that’s why plenty of people didn’t want to read (or were disappointed when they read) Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In that novel, which takes place twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, we learn that Finch is much more complex than the noble role model that his daughter Jean Louise ‘Scout’ envisions. I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it and plan to do so. But I will say that what we learn about Finch in this novel was extremely difficult for a lot of readers to accept. There’ve been other criticisms of Go Set a Watchman, too. But the revelations about Finch’s character have certainly caused a lot of discussion and disillusionment.
That sort of thing has happened with other fictional characters, too. For example, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that Conan Doyle originally planned to end the Holmes stories with The Final Problem. In that story, Holmes goes up against his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Things get so dangerous that Holmes and Watson end up leaving England for the European Continent. Moriarty tracks them down, though, and there’s a climactic scene at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Readers were upset, of course, at losing Sherlock Holmes. But they were also upset that their hero had actually succumbed – had not been able to best his opponent. The outcry against that fate played a major role in Conan Doyle’s decision to bring Holmes back.
Some readers have become a bit disillusioned with Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. It’s not his commitment to his work, nor his skill, that’s the problem. It’s his personal life. Although he has a caring relationship with his longtime lover, Livia Burlando, Montalbano does allow himself to be distracted by other women. He sometimes acts in immature ways, too. And there are readers who feel a little let down by that. Others see it as evidence that Montalbano is a complex character who is a flawed human, as we all are.
Sometimes, fictional characters become disillusioned with the main character. That’s what happens to Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin more than once. His boss, Nero Wolfe, is a brilliant detective, and Goodwin knows and respects that. But at the same time, Wolfe has plenty of faults, as his fans know. As Goodwin sees this, he does feel let down at times, and a few times, actually parts ways with Wolfe. But in the end, he sees Wolfe for what he is: a flawed human being with a real talent for detection.
Agatha Christie’s Captain Arthur Hastings becomes a little disillusioned with Hercule Poirot at times. In Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, Poirot and Hastings investigate the death of wealthy Emily Arundell. Poirot had gotten a letter from her asking for his assistance. But she didn’t mention exactly what the problem was. By the time he got the letter, though, it was too late. She was already dead. Still, Poirot feels an obligation to his would-be client. And he and Hastings soon discover that more than one person had a motive for wanting her dead. At one point, they’re visiting Miss Arundell’s niece, Theresa. During their visit, Theresa’s brother Charles also stops by her home. Poirot and Hastings take their leave, but Poirot insists on turning back and listening at the door to see what the two Arundells say to each other. Hastings is not at all happy at this, feeling that Poirot has let him down by not ‘playing the game.’ And of course, Hastings is all too aware of Poirot’s – er – sense of self-empowerment. Flawed Poirot certainly is, but Hastings knows he’s a brilliant detective.
And that’s the thing about those fictional characters who’ve had a real impact (I’ve only mentioned a few here. I know you could list many more!). On some level, we want them to always make the right choices, and win out in the end. Perhaps it’s idealism. On the other hand, we also want our fictional characters to be human beings. And that means that they have flaws. Sometimes they let us down.
What do you think about all of this? Have you felt really disillusioned by one of your top fictional sleuths? Does that stop you reading about that person? If you’re a writer, do you deliberately make way for your characters to let readers down?
This post is dedicated to the memory of Harper Lee. She created some of American literature’s iconic and memorable characters. Whatever Atticus Finch might have been like if he’d been real, we’ll always remember what we want to think he was.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alex C. Kramer, Hy Zaret, and Joan Whitney.