For those of you that don’t know, Scout Finch (real name Jean Louise) is the main character of Harper Lee’s two novels: To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman. To Kill A Mockingbird – one of the most well-received, beautiful, perfect books ever written EVER – deals with Scout’s childhood in 1930s Alabama, and its sequel, Go Set A Watchman, deals with Scout’s experiences as a young woman in the 1950s (some of which involve personally crushing my dreams). For decades, To Kill A Mockingbird was the only book Harper Lee had ever written, but just last week the long-lost sequel to/first draft of Mockingbird was published. The sequel has been the subject of considerable controversy – most of it surrounding Harper Lee’s age and the apparent U-turn she made with regards to her decision to publish again – and Scout herself has been thrown back into the public eye as a beloved childhood favourite all grown up.
Now it’s my turn to wade in on the debate. Strap in and prepare yourselves for my feelings – and watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout is a very young girl. She begins the book at six years old and ends it at eight. Much of the novel’s charm comes from the fact that Scout is simply too young to understand what’s going on around her, and this also helps to soften some of its darker moments. The fact that she is so young seriously hampers her agency as a character, as she won’t be fully in control of her life for at least another ten years. However, much like Matilda before her, she doesn’t really let this stop her from participating in the story: she still sneaks into places she shouldn’t, makes friends with people she’s told to stay away from, and gets into trouble of her own accord.
In Go Set A Watchman, Scout’s a grown woman, so much of what I said in the previous paragraph doesn’t apply here. She’s still a very active character, but there are a different set of restrictions placed upon her: the expectation that she’ll behave like a proper Southern lady. Happily, Scout doesn’t let these restrictions hold her back – it’s established that she actually moved to New York before the novel started because she found Alabama society so restrictive – and while she faces a lot of pressure, ultimately she doesn’t let herself get swept up by it.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
It’s established in both books that Scout is an unconventional person. As a child, she enjoyed fighting, shooting and climbing trees; as an adult, she takes a certain amount of pleasure in shocking her Alabama neighbours. She believes very strongly in racial equality – a belief partially installed by her father, Atticus Finch – but she takes it much further than him, as she believes in total desegregation whereas in Go Set A Watchman, we find out that Atticus has joined a ‘Citizen’s Council’ designed to stop this from happening.
In terms of her goals, there’s nothing explicitly stated in the text – she doesn’t have a burning passion to carve out an obscure career – but it’s implied through the way that Scout reacts to her surroundings that what she really wants is to live in a less restrictive environment. It’s made pretty clear that she finds this suffocating in both books, and she actively pursues this: she moves halfway across the country in order to make this a reality.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Scout’s character is remarkably consistent over both books – which is impressive, considering that there’s a span of twenty years between both versions of her character and that one book was only ever intended to be the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. She’s consistently stubborn, fiery, unconventional, compassionate, carefree and at times aggressive, although these traits take on different forms as a child and as an adult.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
An unconventional, stubborn young woman must confront the realities of her racially intolerant society in order to grow and mature as a person.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Scout’s decisions are very rarely influenced by her love life. In To Kill A Mockingbird, she has a childhood crush on her neighbour, Dill, but this rarely affects her actions apart from occasionally pushing him into the dirt now and then. In Go Set A Watchman, she’s romantically involved with her father’s business partner, Henry Clinton – he actually proposes to her, although she turns him down repeatedly – but this barely affects her decisions at all. Scout may be involved with him, but when she finds out he’s joined the same Citizen’s Council as Atticus she refuses to speak to him, and is so disgusted that it makes her physically sick. She’s not prepared to put aside her beliefs in the name of love, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Scout’s character development is actually pretty similar in both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman. In both stories she grows up a little, becomes a bit more comfortable with her surroundings, and comes to see her father – and herself – in a new light. Where they differ is in the things she learns. In Mockingbird, her short temper is curbed a little, she becomes a bit more at ease with her own gender (but not with the restrictions imposed because of it) and comes to develop a more nuanced view of her father. In Watchman, she starts trying to look at things from different people’s perspectives and actually begins to pull away from Atticus and develop a moral code of her own. That’s realistic development both when she’s a child and when she’s a young adult, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Scout can be stubborn, uncompromising, and aggressive, but one of Scout’s biggest weaknesses is her tendency to lash out at people. When she’s a child, she does this physically; when she’s an adult, she just gets really, really vicious with her insults. This frequently gets her into trouble, especially when she’s younger, but what’s interesting is that by the time she’s grown up people have come to see it as ‘just Scout’s way’. Her behaviour still lands her in trouble, especially with her family, but it’s excused a lot more often than when she was a child. Regardless, it’s a believable weakness that affects her journey through the story, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Even though Scout is a very active character, when you really analyse her actions she doesn’t actually have all that much of an effect on the plot. In both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, Scout doesn’t do an awful lot to set the story in motion: it’s the actions of other characters – such as Atticus, the Ewells, and her fiancé – that actually generate the events of the story, and Scout just happens to stumble onto them.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Strap in and prepare yourselves for a gender essay, kids!
Gender stereotypes play a huge role in Scout’s life, and this is directly acknowledged in the novels. They take on a particularly Southern flair, but in both books it’s well established that Scout knows full well that she’s expected to be a delicate, demure, retiring, proper young lady who devotes herself to her family – and later, to her husband.
Scout is, of course, none of these things. She swears, she smokes, she picks fights, she goes skinny dipping and most importantly at all, she mixes outside of her social class. Scout comes from a very old Southern family who are as much a part of her hometown as the county courthouse, and this has a really interesting effect on the way Scout relates to gender stereotypes. Because she comes from such a wealthy and well-established family, much of her non-conformist behaviour is tacitly approved of, because “it’s just her way”. She comes from a family that’s well-established enough for her stranger behaviour to be seen as ‘eccentric’: in this respect, she gets away with a lot more than some of the other female characters in the story ever could.
However, this doesn’t mean that she’s free of what these stereotypes will eventually mean for her. In To Kill A Mockingbird, her Aunt Alexandra actively forces her to behave more like a lady: she takes away Scout’s overalls and stuffs her into a pink dress, and makes her sit in on a meeting of the Missionary Society – which is essentially how Maycomb’s ladies socialise with each other. Scout finds the experience stifling and confusing, but ultimately knows that she can’t get away from it. In Go Set A Watchman, there’s a very similar scene where Aunt Alexandra organises a get-together for Scout and some of her old school friends when she comes back from New York. Scout, who has very different goals to her happily married classmates, gets extremely restless and feels a strong sense of judgement coming from her former friends when they hear about her lifestyle.
She rejects these stereotypes, but all throughout both novels there’s a sense that eventually, she will give in to them. In Go Set A Watchman, Scout finally confronts her father about his joining a Citizens’ Council. She screams at him, swears at him, and accuses him of being a complete hypocrite as when she was a child he instilled a strong belief in racial equality in her, and – as seen in To Kill A Mockingbird – he defends a black man accused of raping a white girl in court. Atticus calmly rebuffs all her arguments and explains his position. He is presented as the reasonable, rational party in their confrontation – even though he’s defending a system that was one of the last legal remnants of the slave trade.
Scout never explicitly says that Atticus has talked her round to his way of thinking, but after their debate she reconciles with both him and her fiancé, when before their position on racial equality literally made her physically sick. What this means in terms of stereotypes is loaded with unfortunate implications: Scout’s views are effectively trivialised as irrational and emotional by the aftermath of this exchange, and she herself is dismissed along with them. Her beliefs are not given the same credence as those of the men she encounters and this, in turn, trivialises her efforts to make her own way of life away from the South. In reconciling with her fiancé – who she doesn’t really love – and coming to understand some of Atticus’s outright racist views, it seemed to me that the novel was implying that all of Scout’s wildness, all of her ferocity and all of her independence were tacitly being dismissed as a phase in her life that she would eventually outgrow. I finished reading Go Set A Watchman with the overwhelming sense that Scout would eventually end up as one of those delicate Southern ladies she felt so alienated from, and that thought made me deeply, deeply sad.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Scout’s relationships with other female characters are varied and interesting. Having never known her mother, she was essentially raised by the family maid, Calpurnia – a black woman with a very ‘tough love’ approach to child care, who she becomes estranged from in Go Set A Watchman due to the tensions surrounding the racial climate in Maycomb. Her Aunt Alexandra frequently tries to force her to be more feminine, and this rarely works – but even though they frequently wind each other up, they still love each other. As a child, Scout looks up to her neighbour, Miss Maudie Atkinson – an unconventional, unaffected woman who enjoys gardening – looks down on her other neighbour, Miss Stephanie Crawford – an extremely nosy, gossipy woman – and is straight-up scared of her crotchety old neighbour, Mrs DuBose, who’s half-senile by the time Scout meets her. That’s a wide range of relationships with a wide range of characters, so she gets the point.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Scout is a fiery, stubborn, unconventional young woman who is in control of her own life. She has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of different female characters, her personality and skills are consistent throughout both books, and she has a weakness that seriously affects her journey through the story.
Much of Scout’s issues as a character – such as the fact that she’s not always the one moving the plot along, or the problematic way she relates to gender stereotypes – are much more prevalent in Go Set A Watchman than in To Kill A Mockingbird, and I think that a lot of that stems from the fact that Watchman shouldn’t really be read as a sequel: it’s just the first draft of the original story. If Watchman hadn’t been published, Scout may well have got a perfect score on my test – but it would be at the expense of learning more about her character.
Next week, I’ll be revisiting my nightmares and trying not to cry. Coraline, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.