Atticus’s moral character has never been called into question in Maycomb. He can be described with three words: integrity, humor, and patience. He always acts the same in public as he does in private, and so tries to do nothing he would ever be ashamed of. He had married a woman younger than himself, had two children, and found his wife dead of a congenital heart defect when Jean Louise was two. Atticus was then left at forty-eight to raise his children, with only the help of his black cook and housekeeper Calpurnia.
Lee now steps back to further describe Atticus’s character, explaining why Jean Louise is so sickened to see him at the citizens’ council meeting. This is less effective in Watchman as a backstory, but most readers will already be familiar with Atticus’s character from Mockingbird, and so better able to share in Jean Louise’s disillusionment.
Atticus had raised his children well, teaching them to read early and letting them read whatever he was reading. Jem and Jean Louise went with him wherever he went, even when he traveled on business. Jean Louise had never missed her mother, because Atticus seemed like everything for her. She had never even considered herself a girl until she got her period at age eleven. Uncle Jack came to Maycomb soon after, and he and Atticus helped raise Jean Louise from a “howling tomboy into a young woman.”
Our only earlier experience is with Scout as a “howling tomboy,” and the intervening years between Mockingbird and Watchman are hazy even in Lee’s explanations. Here we get an outside narrator’s point of view on Atticus’s relationship with Jean Louise growing up, instead of Scout’s own words, as in Mockingbird.
Atticus sent Jean Louise to a womens’ college in Georgia, and then told her to move away and learn to fend for herself, as he wanted to be sure that she was responsible enough without his help. Even when she lived far away, however, Atticus’s love and integrity had been “the most potent moral force in her life,” and influenced every decision she made. She did not realize that this basically meant that she worshipped him. Jean Louise always felt sorry for other people who complained about or mocked their fathers, as she felt hers was beyond reproach. She was “complacent in her snug world.”
Here Lee makes the point that Uncle Jack will later elaborate upon at the end of the novel: that Jean Louise built her conscience and principles around Atticus himself, and so is unable to cope when he seems to go against those same principles. She set her father up as a god and so had nothing to support her when he turned out not to be. Jean Louise’s complacency regarding her father echoes that of the reader who only knows Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird—a seemingly perfect man as seen through the eyes of his young daughter.