“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
I’ve been thinking about giants. Some giants we make and others are made for us. Specifically, I’ve been considering one of the giants in England and the one that used to reside in Alabama. This week I saw the movie The BFG based on the book by Roald Dahl. I also read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Granted, they are both fictional stories and, one might say, from very different places in the literary world. But the best fiction tells us something true about ourselves, and these two very different stories share much in common–only in reverse. They both address the human tendency to manufacture a hero. This is an idea worthy of exploring.
In The BFG, Sophie, a bright, precocious, and incredibly brave little orphan girl looking for someplace to tie her heart, meets a giant. In the beginning, she is afraid of him. She starts off seeing him maybe not even as a person but as a thing to be feared. He is big, mysterious, seemingly ignorant, and possibly dangerous. But Sophie does not cower under her covers. She inherently senses something needful and beautiful, something of value for her. As the giant carries her to his cave and takes care of her, we learn he is not only more human than most human “beans” and not dangerous but we find that his heart is even bigger than his ears. (Once you read the book, you’ll get the reference!) He is a BFG, a Big Friendly Giant. The huge giant and the little girl become great friends. And, it would seem, Sophie finds what she was seeking, what she needed, what we all need–not necessarily a giant, but a friend with a giant heart.
I will not give away the story; you must read this scrumdiddlyumptious tale for yourself. Suffice it to say, Sophie’s perception of the giant changes as she gets to know him. Isn’t that the way with most people we allow ourselves to get to know? How often are our first impressions of people shattered when they surprise us with some word or action that is “out of character” and our view of them changes, expands to include and envelop new personality traits? How surprising it is when these new traits deviate greatly from our original image. Despite Malcolm Gladwell’s premise in his book Blink, that it is usually within the first couple of minutes of meeting someone that we form an image of them that will stick, maybe we can overcome that and, as the old adage goes, not judge a book by its cover. Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A mind once stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Our impressions of people are expanded by our increasing and varying experiences with them, never to return to our original, more limited first impression.
In contrast to Sophie’s relationship with her giant, the relationship between Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her father Atticus Finch seems to move in the opposite direction. It grows more troubled over time as we progress from To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout was a young girl, to Go Set a Watchman where she is now 26. We fell in love with Scout and Atticus in Mockingbird. Atticus was the hero when he defended a falsely accused Negro man in an Alabama courthouse. (I don’t feel I’m giving anything away here. If you haven’t read Mockingbird, well, get to it!) Because of his integrity, Scout places him on a pedestal. And we, as the readers, can’t help but do the same. Who wouldn’t want a dad like that?
But in Watchman, he falls off the pedestal as Jean Louise (as she is called as an adult) learns her father is a bigot. (I’m not going to tell you the whole story. You may want to read it, and if you haven’t, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt; it just came out in 2015. You may not want to read it. You may want to keep Atticus on that pedestal. Believe me, I understand.) Jean Louise finds Atticus at a meeting with a bunch of people using racist language and distributing racist literature and learns her father is not who she thought he was. The impression she had of him for so long is shattered and she feels betrayed, feels it was all a lie. Her giant shrinks. But is this merely a consequence of growing up? Maturing? Seeing our parents for who they really are, warts and all? Her perception of him changes as Sophie’s perception of the BFG changed, but in Jean Louise’s case, this happens in a negative way. We get the impression she doesn’t feel it widening her perspective as much as bringing her secure world crashing down to the ground.
At the end of Watchman, Jean Louise and Atticus have the hard conversation. She is very heated. He remains cool and composed. You get a black and white version of Gregory Peck in your mind as Atticus pushes his hat back on his head and justifies himself while remaining tender with his beloved daughter. She is still the jewel of his heart, but she is growing older and her perspective needs to change in order for her to grasp the complete picture, the whole truth with all the nuances of who her father really is. And who put him on that pedestal? She did. Was it fair to him that he would have to live up to some larger-than-life image she conjured up in her mind?
At the risk of waxing psychological, I suggest that Mockingbird offered us, among other valuable lessons, a picture of a healthy father-daughter relationship. In my opinion, a little girl needs to believe her daddy can slay dragons. He should be a knight in shining armor–for his little girl. But in Watchman, Scout is no longer little.
We loved Atticus Finch for his integrity and his tenderness with his daughter. So much controversy has been made over Harper Lee’s portrayal of him in Watchman. I think it’s because we wanted to believe in the Herculean version of him. We, too, want to place him on the pedestal. And keep him there. But what if this other side of Atticus is true to his character, too? Doesn’t that make him more human? More plausible? Or maybe it transports us way back to the beginning of our quest. Maybe it sends us, like young Sophie, to the window at the witching hour, where, parting the moonlit curtains with trembling fingers, we peer out at the shadows, our hearts yearning for a hero.