From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch–“Scout”–returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can be guided only by one’s conscience. Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision–a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.
I put off reading this book for a while because of the controversy that surrounds it. Many people believe that it wasn’t Harper Lee’s intention to ever have it published, some people say that it was the original draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, and most people were outraged with Atticus’ apparent shift in character, crying out “our beloved Atticus is a racist!”
I’m not buying into the whole “Harper Lee didn’t want it published” thing. I’m also not convinced that Atticus is racist. I think that his stance is complex and, at times, confusing, but I wouldn’t label him racist. Some of you who have read the book might be wondering how in the world I could even say that! Just hear me out.
In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus treated the black community with kindness and respect. He defended Tom Robinson because he believed him to be innocent. We learn in Go Set A Watchman that Atticus joined the Klan when he was younger. Why? Not because he believed in what they stood for, but because he wanted to know who was underneath the masks and he wanted to keep an eye on them to prevent too much trouble from happening. Does that sound like a racist to you? We have to remember, as we should with every book, that this was a completely different time than now. How often we forget to take that into consideration. We read a book from the perspective of our time and culture. Books don’t and can’t work that way. In today’s day and age, Atticus would, indeed, be racist. But it wasn’t set in our world today, it was set in the 1950s. To top it all off, it was set deep in the South.
When Jean Louise (Scout) learns of her father’s apparent racism, we’re heartbroken alongside her. We feel the same rage she feels, the same disbelief, the same disappointment, we go through an array of emotions. Why did we all react so strongly? Because Atticus had become like a “god” in our eyes. He’d been placed on a pedestal and could do no wrong. I guess, in a way, To Kill A Mockingbird let us believe that. Atticus became our hero, much like he was Scout’s hero.
Scout confronts Atticus at the end of the book. She screams and curses and refuses to listen to any explanation that Atticus gives. When it’s clear that she won’t listen to anything that Atticus has to say, he simply tells her that he loves her, which only angers her further. Leaving in a fit to go pack her bags and leave Maycomb with no intention of coming back, her Uncle approaches her and, after literally knocking some sense into her, she comes back down to earth. He begins to explain everything, not only teaching Scout a lesson, but also teaching us one. He tells Scout that she’s a bigot, that she’s so set in her own convictions that she can’t even listen to what other people have to say. He also explains that he and Atticus had been hoping for a moment like this, when her conscience was no longer joined to Atticus’, but became her own.
Let’s just stop there. Isn’t that exactly what’s happening to the readers? We’ve put Atticus on this pedestal which led to his conscience, in a sense, becoming our conscience and we needed to break free from that. We needed to be disappointed by Atticus in order to understand that he’s only human. I, personally, didn’t lose any respect for Atticus. In fact, I may actually respect him more, knowing his history and the decisions he’s made in spite of the culture surrounding him. However, the pedestal is gone and he no longer is this “god”-like figure. That’s a really good thing.
Okay, now on to the more controversial part of this post. I am, by no means, defending Atticus’ position on racial segregation. For those of you who haven’t read the book, Atticus believes it would be dangerous to give the black community the same rights as the white community. Why? I believe the main reason is because they hadn’t had the same privilege of good education. For that time, that was a valid point. The black community didn’t have the same privileges and, to throw them leadership roles wouldn’t be in the best interest of the entire community, black or white. I’d like to believe that Atticus simply understood that, in order for there to be complete equality, it would take time and patience. Of course, in the world we live in today, we feel outraged that complete equality would even be something that’s questioned. But, in their world, it was something that had to be a slower process.
You definitely don’t have to agree with me, but I do think it’s important that we all learn the lesson that Scout had to learn at the end of the book: to listen and reflect on what other people have to say about things. I know that, at the first signs of Atticus’ apparent racism, I was heartbroken. I didn’t understand how the man I respected the most out of any other character in literature could be so changed. After finishing the book and learning the same lesson as Scout, I sat and reflected on the character of Atticus. May I suggest to you that Atticus remained the same person he was in To Kill A Mockingbird but we were so busy placing him on a pedestal that we just couldn’t see that he obviously had some flaws?
Scout wanted to run away and leave her father and Maycomb behind, feeling like she was the only one who felt like there was something wrong with the way that the black community was treated. How often do we run away from people that we disagree with? Scout didn’t want to be in Maycomb because she felt like no one understood her and that everyone was against her. Encouraged by her Uncle, she decided to stay so that she could be an example to the rest of the community. Running away doesn’t do any good. It’s when you stick up for what you believe in, always being careful to show humility and respect, that change can come about.
I know that this is a complex issue and I truly don’t mean to cause any offense. I don’t stand by Atticus’ ideas because they are so different from what we stand for today. I would like to think that, in that time, I would have been much more like Scout. But the truth of the matter is that Atticus saw a much larger picture than Scout was able to see. In our “fast food” culture, we demand change right away. As we can see, in our world currently, change doesn’t happen overnight.
The fact of the matter is this: Scout was colour-blind. She was way ahead of the times, especially compared to those in the South. She saw neither black nor white, she only saw a human being and believed that every man should have hope and equality. Her compassion and acceptance was what the community of Maycomb needed. I only wish there was another novel so we could see how the two communities eventually united.