The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for putting someone on a pedestal

Read Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman to remind yourself that idolising people does both you and them a disservice

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Ailment: Putting someone on a pedestal

Cure: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

In the case of Atticus Finch, we're all guilty. Who didn't put him on a pedestal after To Kill a Mockingbird? No other fictional character before or since has come to epitomise the courage it takes to stand up for the wronged minority while the majority bays for its blood. For the most part, fictional characters get to keep their pedestals. In life, though – and, it seems, in first drafts of novels, later made into sequels – pedestals topple and those we once admired are revealed to be as fallible as the rest. Read Go Set a Watchman to remind yourself that idolising people in the first place does both you and them a disservice.


Twenty years have passed and Scout – or Jean Louise as she goes by now – is visiting Maycomb from her new life in New York. Now 26, she spends the first few days debating whether or not to marry Henry "Hank" Clinton – a childhood friend whom Atticus has taken under his wing. Still enjoyably outspoken, she fans the disapproval of Maycomb's genteel ladies by swimming in the moonlit river with Hank, and doesn't hesitate to tell her deeply conservative Aunt what a pill she is. But then she stumbles on Atticus and Hank sitting on the Citizens' Council – a local body only slightly less extreme than the Ku Klux Klan – and her world falls apart. Confronting Atticus, she – and we – are shocked to hear him question the pace of change demanded by the civil rights movement, and whether the blacks of Maycomb are really ready to vote.

Of course we reject such views, along with Jean Louise. But, unlike Jean Louise, we can see Lee's wider point – that Atticus, like most of us, gets things wrong sometimes. Embrace, as Jean Louise must, the inevitability of disappointment in mere mortals. Then put not the man, but the act of Atticus Finch, back up on that pedestal, where it belongs.

'The Novel Cure' by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is published in paperback on 3 September by Canongate at £9.99