Go Set A Watchman

I feel that I should start this review with a quick disclaimer: I never idolized Atticus Finch.

I read the reviews before Go Set A Watchman came out. Like many others, I rushed to the bookstore yesterday, July 14, 2015. I snatched the last copy off the shelf, and finished the whole thing in one day, in two sittings.

However, unlike many other fans of To Kill A Mockingbird, I wasn’t expecting to find the same exact textual feel after twenty years of the characters’ maturation, and over half a century of ours.

I first read To Kill A Mockingbird back in eighth grade, like most students in American schools. And like many other students, I enjoyed it. Scout’s six-year-old sass, her little triumphs and pitfalls, the thorny issues she dealt with in her day-to-day life could never fail to fascinate. Jem, the quintessential older brother, reminded me of so many people I knew: my older cousins, my older sister, my uncles when they were younger.

And then there was Atticus. To so many people, Atticus Finch has been a symbol of a righteous man in a very wrong world, a man who stays true to his path no matter what the world throws at him.

I grew up idolizing my father. And to some extent I still do: I still trust him, confide in him, and love him deeply. But I remember when I was six, like Scout. I remember the hero-worship, the absolute certainty that my daddy could do nothing wrong.

Like Scout, when I explain my dad to people who have never met them, I still give them the impression of an amazing man with the perfect sense of humor and a set of strong convictions, a man who is in every way the ideal dad.

But the simple fact is, a little girl describing a father she idolizes will never be able to paint a full picture. And I knew that back when I first read To Kill A Mockingbird. I never idolized Atticus Finch, because he reminded me too much of my own dad. And while I love my dad more than just about anyone else in the world, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I was six it’s this:

My dad is not perfect.

And neither was Atticus Finch.

And I think this is what people lost sight of, both when they first read To Kill A Mockingbird and now, as they read Go Set A Watchman and are shocked by the revelation that a man named Atticus Finch turned out to be just that: a man.

In many ways, the novel delivers exactly what it is billed to. The characters are still recognizably themselves. Scout is Scout still: a rebel, a liberated woman in a society she still doesn’t quite know how to operate in. Jem, bless him, (and this is a minor spoiler), died years before the novel opens, from a sudden heart attack on a Maycomb sidewalk. Some men live much more in much less time than others do. To me, Jem was one of those. Hell, my best friend and I unwittingly called that development back in eighth grade: we completely convinced various members of our English class (who hadn’t done their reading) that Jem dies at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird. Six or seven years later, we’ve finally been proved right.

And then there’s Atticus. Who, like his children, is exactly the same character we know from To Kill A Mockingbird. The only thing that’s changed is Scout’s view of him.

It’s funny to me that so many people are so offended by this new, honest look at a well-known character, because ultimately that is the entire point of the novel. Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird form a coherent whole, and one of them absolutely should not be read without the other, now that we finally have access to the complete story. While generations of high school English teachers have held up To Kill A Mockingbird as a discussion of equal rights and prejudice in a Southern American society, I would argue that they have utterly missed the point. While To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are definitely very preoccupied with the issue of racial relations (as indeed they should be, considering the state of the world at their respective times of publication), that is not ultimately their central point.

To me, the point of Harper Lee’s two works is misjudgment and subsequent disillusionment. Thus far, I am in agreement with the standard American literary education, a sentence I had hoped never to write and hopefully never will again (unless we manage to completely overhaul and fix our educational system’s approach to literature, although that seems like a bit too much to hope for). To Kill A Mockingbird is certainly a story of misjudgment: Boo Radley and Tom Robinson have been studied and discussed to death already, so I’m not even going to bother going through that again. But in order for Scout to fully mature as a character, in order for her to fully shed the identity of the little girl in overalls running around Maycomb with her brother and her best friend, she must divest herself of all her illusions. And by the time of Go Set A Watchman, there is only one illusion that remains embedded in the mind of the grown Jean Louise Finch: the blind hero-worship of a flawed man.

This, then, is the real point of the two works. There are no heroes, or at least not perfect ones. The people we idolize are not gods. The ideals we learn from them, however, and the sense of justice we can discover within ourselves as a result, are no less valid.

There was a heresy within the Catholic Church during the time of the emperor Constantine called Donatism. The Donatists held that the validity of Church sacraments was entirely dependent on the virtues of the priest who performed them. For example, if a priest was revealed to have betrayed the Church under torture during the time of the Diocletian persecutions, then every baptism or marriage or ordination to the clergy or whatever other sacraments he performed should be considered invalid, according to the Donatists. The implications of such a belief were enormous: a single priest’s virtue, or lack thereof, could make marriages into prolonged adultery, could illegitimize the children of such unions, could invalidate the sacraments performed by every single priest the traitor priest ordained.

The Donatists disappeared in the 7th or 8th century. In a way, however, Harper Lee is fighting a similar ideology in Go Set A Watchman. The revelation of Atticus Finch as a flawed man does not invalidate the lessons his daughter learned from him, or the ideals she passed on to countless American schoolchildren. Harper Lee’s goal, however, is to remind us that they are still ideals; that there is still a gap between idealism and reality; that we lose sight of that gap at our peril. And I would argue that this new, honest look at Atticus makes him a more interesting and more complete character. As I said before, I never subscribed to the hero-worship of Atticus Finch.

I’ve been intentionally avoiding the race issue so far in this discussion of Go Set A Watchman. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, I think there are many people more qualified to discuss race than I am, and I am looking forward to reading their views on the book’s treatment of racism. Secondly, as I said earlier, I don’t see race as the central issue of Harper Lee’s work. While she is certainly interested in race and has some fascinating discussions of some of the subtler issues surrounding the topic, I believe she is also using the race discussion as a vehicle to illustrate a different, related point.

Thus far, I haven’t discussed the character of Scout herself too much. I’m going to shift my focus to her now, because she is still very much the central figure of the novel (as she was in To Kill A Mockingbird, although regrettably people seem to pass over her to focus on Atticus).

Although Go Set A Watchman, unlike its predecessor, is written in the third-person, I found myself gaining a much better understanding of Scout as a character from the later work. This is by no means a condemnation of To Kill A Mockingbird; I adored Scout in both books, and never at any point felt like I couldn’t relate to or understand her. However, the Scout of To Kill A Mockingbird is very clearly the six-year-old idealist who is just starting to learn about the world. The Jean Louise of Go Set A Watchman, on the other hand, is returning to Maycomb for a two-week visit after living alone in New York City for a few years. This is a Scout whose world has expanded beyond the familiar streets of her childhood, a Scout who has grown up in every sense of the phrase. This is a Scout who has been plopped back down in Maycomb, and is able to look around and ask, for the first time, “Is this my home?” The six-year-old Scout never had to ask such a question; Maycomb was her world, and her home was solidly and comfortably in the house she shared with Jem and Atticus and Calpurnia.

The woman we see in Go Set A Watchman has changed a lot. Without giving too much away, the one thing I need to say is that her dilemmas in Go Set A Watchman are ones that resonated with me very strongly. I saw a lot of myself in Jean Louise Finch, much more than I did in Scout. Her struggles with reconciling herself to the changes in her identity, her shocks at the small changes time has brought about in her home town, her realization that she feels like an outsider within the society she grew up in, and her attempts to understand her relationships with her father and her boyfriend Henry in the light of new discoveries about them both…at every step of the way, I found myself identifying with Jean Louise. Even though very few of my life experiences perfectly paralleled hers, in Go Set A Watchman Jean Louise finds herself struggling with questions that I think every woman (and most men as well) must encounter at some point. The honest portrayal of an internal struggle between one’s ideals and the sometimes-harsh reality of one’s life was refreshingly realistic to me. Harper Lee managed to capture all the emotions, all the strange logic and odd poeticisms that accompany the all-too-familiar sensations of self-doubt and soul-searching.

Go Set A Watchman will disturb you. It will make you sad (in fact, it made me cry a few times yesterday). It will make you doubt, make you question, make you examine yourself and your world a little more closely. It will make you stop and pay attention, possibly to things you’d rather ignore. Do not read this book if you want the safety and security only a six-year-old can know. Do not read this book if you want to hold onto your hero-worship a little longer. Do not read this book if you do not want your world rocked, your ideals shaken, your convictions tested, possibly to the breaking point.

In short, do not read this book if you are not ready for Scout to grow up.

At least, do not read it yet. Someday, though, I hope you will be ready.

As J.M. Barrie once wrote, “All children, except one, grow up.” And he wasn’t talking about Scout.


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