Yesterday, Harper Collins released Go Set a Watchman, the newly-discovered sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Set 20 years after the events of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning original, Go Set a Watchman finds Scout a grown woman, returning from New York to visit her father Atticus Finch, who has become an aging racist. I repeat: Atticus Finch is racist in the new book. That’s an unfortunate turn of events for people who named their children Atticus, as the New York Times reports. I should definitely feel bad for those literary-minded parents and their Atticuses, too, but schadenfreude persists.
Schadenfreude, as we all learned from our freshman-year crushes on Carolyn Jacobson, is a German term meaning “shameful joy.” It describes the odd feeling of elation one sometimes experiences at seeing bad things happen to other people. Schadenfreude is not for great tragedies. If you feel shameful joy at, say, a tsunami striking the Pacific rim, you’re doing it wrong. Schadenfreude is not the absence of empathy. But it is, maybe, the detection of a measure of justice in certain objectively bad events.
Consider Atticus Campbell, age three, photograph at right. Born shortly after his parents moved from Brooklyn to the suburbs of Atlanta, he is named for the good, Kill-a-Mockingbird Atticus Finch. It’s nice his parents named him after a character in a book instead of a luxury car. It’s nice they live in a beautiful brick home with wooden chairs handmade for Atticus and his sister Edith by their grandmother. And it’s nice he appears to be some sort of dickens. Why, then, is it also nice his parents’ desire to give him a name that “[isn’t] super-popular” backfired?
Part of it is probably that Atticus belongs to a recognizable class of child. I have no evidence to back this up, but I’ll bet he just tears around the Starbucks. Like the Campbells’ narrative—live in Brooklyn until you get pregnant, then move to the suburbs—Atticus’s fancy name is shorthand for broad trends in my generation’s approach to adulthood and parenting. Is it unfair and almost certainly a mistake to generalize this way? Absolutely. The Campbells are probably not dilettante yuppies who insisted their child was special by giving him a special name. But the change in connotation of “Atticus” is much more satisfying if we think of them that way.
Schadenfreude is shameful in part because it encourages us to think of bad news as something the victims deserve. That’s what you get for naming your kid Atticus, a name that appears exactly twice in the vernacular: once as the hero of a beloved novel, and once as a respected knight of ancient Rome. In the context of this week’s events, the new association of “Atticus” with virulent racism is a fitting punishment for parents who tried to make their children important by dint of being born. Why not let your kid make the name “Steve Campbell” formidable and impressive via his great life, rather than giving him a hero’s name and hoping events go accordingly?
The problem with this reasoning is that it is extremely uncharitable. Of course parents believe in their hearts that their own particular children are special. That’s good. It is a touch un-American, in my opinion, to try to enforce that specialness by giving them fancy names, but we’re not talking about a setback that befell Supergod Backflip Campbell. We’re talking about a kid whose parents named him after a character in a book—one they loved because Atticus Finch was smart and principled and helped other people. I’m not sure that act deserves comeuppance.
In this case, at least, schadenfreude is premised on the idea of “that’s what you get for acting special.” As much as we might experience visceral joy at the irony of yuppies co-opting the wrong hero for their kid, that joy is grounded in a dismal insistence that we all be brought low. I believe that urge is shameful, even as it is essentially human. We should hope that all the toddling Atticuses go on to become famously effective civil rights lawyers. We may be forgiven in those moments we do not, but we are probably still wrong.