Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman is a highly debated novel for several reasons. For one, there are disputes about authorship, and whether Lee intended for GSAW to be published at all. Secondly, Go Set A Watchman takes beloved Atticus Finch – and reveals a history with racism and supremacy in the American south.
It’s easy to understand why both of these elements make GSAW controversial; especially to a 21st century audience. This essay will not focus on the former point regarding authorship and whether Lee gave permission. Rather, I will discuss Atticus Finch, and whether it made sense for him to have such revelations, as well as Scout’s growth and the conclusions she makes.
Of course, Atticus Finch is the controversial focal point in GSAW. The revelations of his racism are certainly frightening, as are his true motives in TKAM. One powerful aspect of GSAW is that the reader must now re-evaluate their perception of Atticus. He is no longer the colour-blind hero we cast him as, and perhaps, we were wrong to do that. This is why GSAW upset so many readers. It took a beloved character and revealed not just flaws, but offensive imperfections. Harper Lee, being the brilliant writer she is, does not condemn Atticus as an individual, either. Many critics and readers interpret Lee as sympathetic to racism because she shows some to Atticus. Yet a crucial part of literature is understanding that individuals are more than their words, thoughts and beliefs.
GSAW is extremely relevant in the 21st century. There are countless stories of family members cutting each other off for political opinions, whilst children are told to denounce their parents. It’s not negative to have passion for politics or religion, but I’ve noticed how fractured they can make people. The solution isn’t ‘kumbaya’- but understanding that not everyone is like you and not everyone should be like you. Atticus’ racism is not positive, but the solution for him isn’t to become more like Scout. There’s a risk of constraining someone’s character into neat little boxes and definitions.
She is no longer called her affectionate nickname Scout – but Jean Louise. A forward-thinking woman, she enters Go Set A Watchmen with a crystallised perception of her father and the world. During the course of GSAW, she learns more about her father and why he took the case in TKAM. This initially shatters her idealised vision of herself and her family. As Jean Louise is a young, twenty-something woman, her journey is remarkably similar of those new to adulthood.
While growing up, we idealise certain situations and individuals. Without this, we never develop the moral guidance necessary to navigate tough situations, free from our ‘idols’. Jean Louise does not tolerate Atticus’ racism, and the partial reason why is due to Atticus’ actions in TKAM, which, according to Scout; stresses the importance of fairness, justice and dignity.
A child can only understand so much complexity. Neither Atticus nor Scout is at fault for this. That’s probably why Jean Louise continued on familial terms with Atticus, even going as far to apologise. Only Scout can solve the issue of idolisation. That said, Jean Louise was correct to stand up to her father. It’s not just ‘racism is wrong’ but because ‘standing up for what is right’ is essential to both Jean Louise and Atticus.
Only when Jean Louise learns the pitfalls of making idols and resorting to judgements can she understand her place in the world: one capable of change, love and family.
The Legacy Of To Kill A Mockingbird
Although I enjoyed Go Set A Watchmen, and find merit in its story, I’m not sure GSAW works as a sequel. This is not due to Atticus nor any attachment readers had towards him. I have no problem with literature questioning their readers; I encourage it. Perhaps Harper Lee could only make her point about idealisation and moral worth through Atticus, and no one else. I can accept this possibility. Also, I appreciate the mature tone of the sequel, as well as expanding on the ideas present in TKAM.
My problem is that To Kill A Mockingbird overshadows Go Set A Watchmen in certain ways, mostly in terms of style. The prose in GSAW isn’t as sharp or as delightful to read. This makes sense, considering it was an early draft. But language is a writer’s paintbrush, and certain provocative ideas suggested by Harper Lee never quite reach full fruition. There’s a sense that GSAW isn’t fully satisfying, but brims with promise: as Ursula K. Le Guin argues, “Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.” I agree with Le Guin.
While researching this article, I read many reviews – mostly focusing on Atticus. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, I noticed an intolerance towards Harper Lee, as if she was making declarative statements about the civil rights movement and believed racism was acceptable. Such beliefs are seen predominately on Goodreads, yet Michiko Kutani, from The New York Times, also engaged in this. The literary critic states that GSAW asks the reader to have empathy for a ‘bigot’ as opposed to Tom Robinson and other maligned individuals in TKAM.
Whilst I understand Kutani’s repulsion, as would many, I do not confuse empathy or even sympathy with excusing. A high point of literature is the opportunity to understand a variety of seriously flawed individuals. This was a strength of Dostoevsky. One ought to point that out; without accusations of racism or bigotry.
I’m quite fond of Go Set A Watchman. However, I understand why others differ. While the book has technical flaws, and the issue of authorship is certainly important, I appreciate the message in Go Set A Watchman. It’s quite necessary in an age where we label each other ‘racist’ or ‘anti-racist.’ Idolatry is only possible if one manifests demons. Angels and fiends are never human, either.