by Kathleen Valentine
On a discussion board about books I have been involved in one discussion about the character of Atticus Finch, the enduring hero of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. It has been an interesting discussion particularly because a couple of participants are trying to make the case that Atticus is hard for them to admire because he seems so “unrealistic.” One person said that he didn’t buy Atticus because he needed to be “more well-rounded.” He said “I want to see him bitter and angry over losing his wife and so outraged over what happens to his client that he punches Bob Ewell in the nose.” Goodness.
Of course, the response to that is that Atticus is so admirable and heroic because he doesn’t rant and rave and punch people. He is a good, honest, decent man who has been dealt some unpleasant cards in his life and, despit that, is still a good, honest, decent man. If he was a whiny, bitter brute there would be no point to the book. But this brings up a point that I have been thinking about for some time.
In recent months I have read – or started to read – several books in which, a couple of chapters into the book, I realized there was not one character I liked. All of them were whiny, self-absorbed people whose only motivation was getting what they wanted and trying to wheedle and manipulate everyone in the process. Who wants to read about people like that? Except a lot of people do. I have brought this up in a few discussions of those books and the response has been, yeah, they are but that’s how people are. I find that discouraging.
A few years back there was a little bit of a hulabaloo in certain quarters over the fact that Narcissistic Personality Disorder had been declassified as a mental disorder and removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder. In other words NPD was so common that it was no longer considered a disorder. I have wondered about this as I contemplate the acceptance of self-centered behavior by so many readers. Do these readers now see self-absorpition and manipulation in its service as so common and ordinary that they no longer find it objectionable? I wonder.
For years I have been complaining about the popularity of miz-lit, books about people who, for one reason or another, endured a miserable childhood or situation, survived it, and then wrote a book detailing their misery. It is not that I am unsympathetic to their suffering but I find the voyeuristic consumption of these books for entertainment to be disturbing. Are these people the new heroes? I don’t know.
I’ve always been attracted to heroic characters in books, movies, etc. I want to believe that people are capable of being far better than they would normally be expected to be just out of a sense of personal worth. I love characters with dignity and a sense of honor. As a kid I grew up loving super-heroes, like a lot of kids did. Characters who were strong and powerful and who could vanquish the bad guy, restore order, and carry the heroine off into the sunset. That’s why to me Atticus Finch was so astonishing. He didn’t do any of that (well, he shot the rabid dog which was pretty cool) but in his fight to save Tom Robinson he lost. He entered the contest knowing he would lose, that he could not win, and yet he did it anyway because he was a just man. When his daughter asks him why he is defending Tom and he says, “Because if I didn’t I couldn’t hold my head up in this town. I couldn’t even tell you and Jem not to do something again.” In other words, to Atticus Finch his right to moral authority was entirely based on his own moral behavior.
Is narcissism replacing moral authority? I wonder. Are heroes becoming obsolete as people become increasingly acceptant of their own self-righteousness whether they deserve it or not? I hope not but I do wonder. I hope that Atticus Finch will always be a hero to most people but I worry about it sometimes.
Thanks for reading.