Like a lot of readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, I romanticized and idealized Atticus Finch as the perfect father – virtuous, moral, fair, and good. So like many of the same readers, I was ambivalent when Harper Lee’s manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was published. Not only was the question of her senility bothering me, but I also wondered if a sequel would ruin my memories of To Kill a Mockingbird – would an inferior sequel somehow dampen my appreciation for the original.
Interestingly enough, Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first, and an editor suggested that she expand on the section in which the novel’s protagonist, Scout reminisces about her childhood. Telling the story from a child’s point of view is interesting because like her readers, Lee’s heroine sees her father in a similarly hero worship way.
What pushed me to read the book was the attention that Atticus Finch was receiving. Unlike the moral hero in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is a flawed human being. Though he still has a serious set of codes and ethics, he’s also racist. To many this characterization was shocking and dismaying – some refused to read the book, so that their perfect image of Atticus Finch remains so: perfect. More than any other book, To Kill a Mockingbird inspires a sentimentality among many of its readers, probably because it’s one of the first “issue” books read as a child.
Go Set a Watchman takes place years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout returns to Maycomb to an elderly and increasingly-infirm Atticus Finch, who lives with his opinionated sister. Meeting her on her return is her longtime beau, Hank, a childhood friend who hopes that their casual relationship would eventually turn into marriage. The plot of To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in a chapter, in which Scout things about her father’s crusading work as a lawyer.
For most readers approaching Go Set a Watchman, the media coverage of Atticus Finch’s racism will weigh heavily during the reading. It did for mine. I read with dread, waiting for Atticus Finch, the klansman to appear – and it doesn’t happen. Atticus is racist, and it’s disturbing to read this once-revered paragon of virtue espouse disgusting attitudes about race – but the character is essentially an allegory of toppled heroes – no one can live up to heroic standards, and certainly no one can live up to the standards set by idealistic children. Atticus Finch was frozen in amber for Scout and Harper Lee’s readers because we all saw him through Scout’s eyes, when she was a child. Harper Lee doesn’t create Atticus Finch for readers to wholly condemn – instead, he acts as a way for readers to condemn placing too much value and worth on our heroes.
When Scout discovers that her father is an attendant of the Citizens’ Council, it makes her sick – literally. All of her notions of goodness and righteousness are questioned because the man who instilled those values has turned out to be tragically human. Scout and Atticus engage in a dialogue, in which Scout’s impotent rage and offense is easily bounced off by Atticus’ measured defense. It’s a disgusting defense, in which Atticus undoes much of the mythic goodwill he’s engendered in To Kill a Mockingbird. Believing that racial equality is an inevitability, he also sees it as a danger to black people: he’s condescending toward black folks, thinking that they are too backward, childish and simplistic to hold public office, teach in schools, govern, etc. This line of thinking ignores black intellectuals who lived in the United States since slavery, nor does it take into account that in the rural south, whites often suffered because of lack of education and a paucity in resources that middle class folks take for granted.
Part of Atticus’ point was also his resentment at the Brown vs. the Board of Education – particularly the overreach of the Supreme Court in the decision that integrated public schools. It feels very timely reading Got Set a Watchman, in light of how many are characterizing the marriage equality ruling as an instance of the Federal Government overstepping. In Scout’s formless condemnation of the Supreme Court’s ruling as well as Atticus’ more articulate slam as Harper Lee’s feelings of angst over the Federal Government and its role. The resolution between Scout and Atticus also feels cheap and unearned – despite their differences, Atticus is proud that his daughter has principles and stood up to him. The problem is the principles that Scout held aren’t formulated all that well, and Atticus is clearly patronizing his daughter in much the same way he patronizes the black people in his life.
It’s a strange passage in a strange book. It’s a confusing text – sometimes brilliant, but often the story feels a bit too self-satisfied in the characters’ quirkiness, especially when it comes to Scout’s inability to conform to social standards. I felt the book was at certain moments too cutesy in mining comedy – especially when it comes to Scout’s relationship with her aunt, a Southern belle with a penchant for corsets and a devoted obedience to societal and gender mores. The two have a predictably prickly relationship, and it feels cliched and forced.
But there are moments that are breathtaking because of how well written and interesting they are – for example, when Scout finally realizes that the black people employed into domestic servitude aren’t the one-dimensional angels who happily abandon their own families for white families is brutal but important. With books like The Help or Gone with the Wind, the relationship between whites and their black servants is often romanticized at the expense of the examination of the hierarchies that create these inequities. In Go Set a Watchman, some of that happens, too – but it’s deceptive. Though Scout’s mother is dead, her maid, Cal acts as a surrogate mom, even explaining puberty, sex, and menstruation. But when Cal’s grandson is arrested for accidentally running over a white man with his car, a perceptible curtain is dropped between Cal and Scout. Scout visits Cal, hoping to cheer her because Atticus will take on the case (only because he doesn’t want the NAACP to get involved), but her visit to Cal’s home is heart wrenching because she finally learns how tenuous their bond was, and how racial injustice can sour even the seemingly purest of affections (that of a child to a loving adult).
In the end, I read Go Set a Watchman because I felt I had to. Besides being conflicted and disappointed, it did make me want to read To Kill a Mockingbird again. It’s important for readers who feel cheated or robbed to see this book as another work of art – separate it from the original book. It’s not a clear sequel, as it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and really, it acts more as a literary curio – like seeing a good rough draft. I see that Harper Lee was aiming at asking deep questions about race as well as about how children attach values and ideals to their parents – these are important issues to look at. But her questions about race as well as her justly righteous disgust with racism are mitigated by an unsure heroine who cannot seem to intellectualize or verbalize her feelings. Scout as a child is precocious and interesting – Scout as an adult is hesitant and frustrating.