Feet of Clay*

Feet of ClayThe 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?


In Memoriam


Harper Lee

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harper Lee, Rex Stout

33 responses to “Feet of Clay*

  1. R. T.

    My irrational pique takes another route; sometimes an author’s behaviors and attitudes in life cause me to divorce myself from the author’s work. Anne Perry is an example. I’ll not elaborate.

    • You’re not the only one who feels that way, Tim. I know several people who’ve stopped reading an author’s work (or choose not to read that author’s work) because of something the author has done.

  2. Yes!!! I am in the middle of a huge falling out with one of my faves at the moment – Lexie Conyngham’s Charles Murray of Letho! At the end of Book 6 in a series I have loved and been avidly following, something happened that totally changed how I feel about the character and the books – can’t say what, as it would be a spoiler, but it’s something that will have implications in future books. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read book 7 at all, and am not sure whether I ever will. The worst thing is it was so totally unnecessary. I can’t begin to imagine why the author thought it was a good idea… haha! As you can tell, I haven’t really got over it yet…

    • Oh, FictionFan, that’s just exactly the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. Such a shame that it’s the sixth book in,too, when you’ve really gotten to know the character and feel vested in him, if I can put it that way. And I don’t blame you for not getting over it easily. That sort of disillusionment can really put a reader off a series.

  3. Maybe because I tend to go for realism in my fictional characters I don’t tend to get too upset although I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman for a number of reasons, including not wanting to spoil my memories of To Kill A Mockingbird

    • You’re not alone, Cleo. A lot of people don’t plan to read Go Set a Watchman for just exactly that reason. And I know what you mean about waning your characters to be realistic. That means they’re human. And that means they do let others down at times.

  4. I stopped reading Sue Graftin’s Kinsey Malone novels in the second half of the alphabet, after her hero packed a piece one time too many. While reliance on guns doesn’t sit well for me as a reader coming from a country with strict prohibitions on gun ownership, that Kinsey didn’t have a problem with it was a problem for this reader.

    • You know, Angela, I almost mentioned Kinsey Millhone for exactly that reason. You’re definitely not the only one who disagrees strongly with her position on gun ownership and gun use. And although I don’t have data to support myself on this, I’d guess you’re not the only reader to part ways with her for that reason.

  5. Kathy D.

    Hmmm. I have been dismayed at some characters’ behavior, such as Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. One alcoholic blackout too many, although Nemesis is a brilliant book. Violence against women puts off some women friends from reading much of this series.
    And I was irritated at Archie Goodwin’s racist insensitivity in Too Many Cooks. I stopped reading Hercule Poirot books at 19 when I found his bigotry against Jewish people and immigrants objectionable.
    And I will not read To Set a Watchman. What an follow-up to such a good book which portrayed human decency, ethics and respect for other people, especially African Americans. To reverse that is unfair.
    Many readers won’t read this book. People who named their children after Atticus are dismayed, too.
    And Salvo Montalbano? What can we say? He pledges loyalty to Livia in the last book I read. We’ll see if he sticks to his word. But we enjoy these books anyway, much for their humor.
    There is a difference between immature, insensitive behavior by male characters and outright misogyny by authors and characters. I draw the line at that.

    • I think you’re right, Kathy, that there’s a difference between insensitivity and misogyny. It’s true, too, that there are plenty of people who don’t plan to read Go Set a Watchman. Funny, too, that you’d mention Goodwin’s insensitivity in Too Many Cooks. That bothered me, too, although I admit that it didn’t stop me reading other books in that series. And as for Harry Hole? You’re not the only one who gets a bit tired of his blackouts and binges.

  6. Pingback: A salute to Harper Lee and Umberto Eco | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  7. Kathy D.

    Binged-out; Blackouts and Binges and Feet of Clay would be good titles.

  8. I bought a copy of Go Set a Watchman but haven’t read it yet. It mystifies me, though, that so many readers responded to the grownup view of Atticus so harshly and revered the child’s concept of Atticus. I remember how differently I viewed my father after I grew up and realized he was just a normal person instead of an all-knowing god. It’s the way life is.

    I was a bit disappointed in the way Nelson DeMille changed something in John Corey’s life in the most recent novel in that thriller series. But I can’t say more or it would be a spoiler.

    • That’s an interesting point, Pat. One of the big differences between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman is the difference in perspective between the young Jean Louise and the adult Jean Louise. We do learn to see our parents as just people as we grow up, and certainly that’s an important plot point in the latter novel. Thanks, too, for mentioning the DeMille series. That’s one I ought to explore more than I have.

  9. I read Patricia Cornwell avidly until Black Notice which I think contained the hairy man, I forget the technical term. Towards the end of the book when Scarpetta has been told he’s on the loose and she’s in danger she opens her front door to him and I felt so annoyed I haven’t read another. It was a ‘throw it across the room’ moment for me. But up until then I’d enjoyed them. There was something about this one that I felt ‘jumped the shark’ and did not bode well for the future.

    • I know precisely what you mean, Vicky. It’s those moments that really cause one to lose faith in a character and really become disillusioned. To be honest, it’s been a while since I was interested in Kay Scarpetta’s doings, myself.

  10. Margot: I have rarely been more frustrated in reading than A Door in the River, the third Hazel Micallef mystery. The second half of the book was so implausible and Hazel’s personality suddenly altered. I exchanged emails with the author reflecting my concern. I have just finished the fourth in the series, The Night Bell. Thankfully it is closer to the first two books in the series in its portrayal of Hazel. I will have a review up in the next couple of weeks.

    • I’m very glad to hear that the series is closer to the first two books now! I’ll be honest, I’ve not (yet) read the fourth. But I know what you mean about A Door in the River. I remember clearly both your review and that email exchange about the book. This is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, so thanks for reminding me of it.

  11. Really enjoyed your post Margot, thanks, it is fascinating what readers will and won’t take seemingly even when ti comes to purely fictional characters – having said that, I still can’t bring my self to read WATCHMAN though 🙂

    • You’re not alone about …Watchman, Sergio! And I agree; it’s absolutely fascinating, isn’t it, to see what readers will and won’t accept when it comes to people who don’t even exist! That just shows you how much dedicated readers invest themselves in stories.

  12. I haven’t decided whether to read Watchman yet. I had enough difficulty reading To Kill a Mockingbird. The prejudices about blacks and women’s roles were just too close to what I grew up with, but it is a powerful book. For all I know, I might find the changes in Atticus interesting, or at least see it as a progression in their lives.

  13. I read Watchman, and thought it not a great book at all – but I was determined that I would not let that spoil my feelings for and memories of both Mockingbird and Atticus Finch.

  14. Hmm…good question. I don’t think I’ve abandoned a series for an out-of-character reason. As a writer, I hope my characters never let my readers down. That must be devastating to read in a review. I will say I like to take chances in my writing. IMHO, if we hold back, we’re not staying true to our characters.

    • There really is a balance, isn’t there, Sue, between taking chances and letting readers down. And because readers are so diverse, it’s very hard sometimes to know just where that balance lies. That’s good ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  15. Many fictional characters have had an impact on me. But I don’t think I have been disillusioned by any of them. Looking back, I do recall being rather upset by the way Anne Tyler treats Ezra Tull in “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.” I didn’t like it that his elder brother, Cody, steals his girlfriend from him. Some books stay in your head more than others and this is one of them.

    I will be rereading TKAM this year, though not the sequel.

    • I think you are quite right, Prashant, that some characters stay with us much longer than others. And sometimes that’s because of something they do that upsets us, or at least that makes us irritated. And you’re not by any means the only one who doesn’t intend to read Go Set a Watchman. If you do get to To Kill a Mockingbird, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  16. Col

    I used to be a massive fan of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, but I just got jaded by him. The character hasn’t changed, but I think I have just tired of him…. maybe a series that has continued on for a bit too long. I’m probably a lone voice, as I’m sure he still has legions of fans.

    • You know, you have an interesting point, Col. Even if a protagonist doesn’t do something to disillusion the reader, there is such a thing as a series going on for too long. It’s not exactly boredom, but it is very hard to sustain a series over a long time. So I’m not surprised that you feel as you do about Dave Robicheaux.

  17. What a lovely tribute to Harper Lee. I loved the photo of her that you posted. I too, like some of your commenters here, was disappointed by Watchmen in that I didn’t find it as captivating as Mockingbird. Except for Scout, I had a hard time caring about the characters in Watchmen – the hero was gone.

    • That’s just it, Carol. For a lot of people, the hero was gone, and that took away some of the deep meaning of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s been a source of real discussion, and you’re not the only one who was disappointed by …Watchman.

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