This post explores my reaction to reading Go Set A Watchman – here be spoilers for Watchman and for To Kill a Mockingbird (if you can really call comments on a novel released over 50 years ago ‘spoilers’).
I recently finished reading Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. Never have I been so conflicted about a book.
Let me explain.
I have loved To Kill a Mockingbird since the first time I read it in my teens. It certainly ranks in my top five favourite books, and might just nudge it’s way to the top of the list. Mockingbird is, for me, one of the best explorations of justice and equality ever written, and I have long thought that if I can grow up to be half the man Atticus Finch is, I will be justifiably proud.
I was, therefore, apprehensive when I heard about Watchman. I was aware that it was an early exploration of the world and characters which eventually formed Mockingbird, and that its release was far from uncontroversial. I had heard, too, that Watchman presented those characters in a very different light to Mockingbird. Together, these led me to fear that reading Watchman would, to a degree, destroy the relationship I had with the Finches et al. In the end, I was so uncertain that I didn’t buy or borrow Watchman. It was not until I was given a copy at Christmas that I decided to read it.
Well, here I am, having finished Watchman, and I cannot deny that, as I expected, my relationship with the world which Harper Lee created has changed. But I remain uncertain as to whether or not this is a ‘good thing’.
Watchman is set some 15-20 years after Mockingbird. In it, Scout Finch returns to the small Town setting of Mockingbird, to find that the civil rights movement has strained previously functional relationships between black and white communities and people (one of the most painful sections of the narrative involves Scout visiting Calpurnia, who had been her housekeeper and surrogate mother, and finding a cool reception). Over the course of the novel, Scout comes to realise that the people she had held up as paragons, in particular her father Atticus, are not as perfect as they appear.
Both novels explore Scout’s relationship with Atticus extensively, and it is here that we see the greatest shift. In Mockingbird, Atticus is presented as the town’s moral compass, willing to stare down a lynch mob unarmed, to defend an innocent black man. We readers assume this is because Atticus cannot abide discrimination and injustice – a view supported by his positive attitude to Boo Radley, a young man with severe learning disabilities.
Watchman alters our perception of Atticus. Whilst I do not believe the book presents him as actually racist (as some people might argue), it does show a man with painfully distorted priorities – a man willing to tolerate racism, in order to attempt to maintain the social structures of Alabama (structures built around social discrimination and segregation), and because his preeminent concern for the law means that he cannot condone the Supreme Court’s intervention and infringement on States’ rights (through rulings such as Brown vs. Board of Education).
Scout cannot dismiss this new experience of what her father is like. I cannot dismiss Watchman as an ‘early draft’ of the novel which became Mockingbird because (except for a small number of allusions and flashbacks), it covers new territory. It has a significant new character (Hank), while two other main characters from Mockingbird (Dill and Jem) are absent. I am therefore forced to integrate the novel into my understanding of Harper Lee’s Maycombe County.
This is a painful experience for Scout, and similarly for me. We both held up Atticus as an ideal man and father. Watchman forces us both to face the reality that everyone is flawed. In some ways, this enriches the reality of the novels. They are more true in that they present a world in which there are no paragons. Scout discovers this new reality some time after the events of the novel, paralleling the experience of readers who first saw Atticus as a hero through her eyes, and are now forced to accept the imperfection of reality. This is especially interesting for people like me – people who first read Mockingbird as children or teenagers, and have grown up in between the two novels. Our experience of the world matches the unique publication order of the novels.
So, the shift is painful but true to life, (and pertinent when we consider that to this day the USA has failed to address its legacy of race division). Nonetheless, I feel I have lost something which cannot now be regained. The novel treats Scout’s experience as one in which she ceases to see Atticus as a God – a source of absolute moral authority – and sees him instead for nothing more or less than the man he is. Atticus is now forever tarnished for me, as he is for Scout. I can still praise his virtue, but it is now tinged with disappointment. I cannot help but feel it might have been better not to see that side of Harper Lee’s world. I know all our parents disappoint us sooner or later, but I wonder if, for that very reason, there is a value in having paragons?
We all need ideals to give us something to strive for. There is surely a place for fiction in providing this? Yet, I cannot now go back. And I’m honestly not sure if I would choose to do so if I could.