“Sometimes we have to kill a little so we can live.”
―Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
Chances are good that you have either read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, or at least heard enough about the controversy surrounding it that you feel like you have a stake in the fight. We all read To Kill a Mockingbird when we are young and we hold certain truths to be self evident: Atticus Finch is a hero, one of the best to grace the printed word. We trot out Lee’s classic and hold it as a golden standard of modern heroism. We use Atticus Finch as a touchstone of all that is good and true.
But when we all started reading Go Set a Watchman, a different truth emerged.
Atticus Finch is, at worst, a racist and former clan member, at best, someone who silently let evil swell in his town and did nothing on account of lofty ideas about the law.
I finished the book this week, in a flurry of tears and pain and thoughts, and I’m climbing up on my little digital soapbox to share them with you today. Warning: there will be vague spoilers.
As this second book was an unpublished draft of the first, something uncommon though not unprecedented in the literary world, there are two ways we can approach it.
First, we can decide that the two books – while eerily similar – are not the same. They are not a prequel and sequel, and Atticus in one is not Atticus in the other. You can still love him, as my friend Amanda wrote here. There is a lot to back this up. The court case that is the plot of the first is little more than a footnote in the second, and with a different ruling. Some characters exist in both, but there are noticeable omissions and differences.
This is how I originally approached this book. It allowed me to continue loving a book I have loved since I first read it, and still allowed me to appreciate this new book – a fine work of hard-hitting literature on its own. It is a 100% justifiable approach as the two works are not, and never will be, intended as prequel and sequel.
But I think there might be even a richer path, one that hurts a whole lot more.
I believe that a good book should cut—rip you open a little and let truth trickle in. Go Set a Watchman can do this if we let it. You see, even while the characters are different in the two, I find the books to be consistent.
In both works, Lee explores racism and exposes the evil dwelling comfortably among us. In To Kill a Mockingbird, she gives us a hero. She allows us to stand behind Atticus, to lean on his conscience, to cheer him on, and to believe that we could be like him. She gives up hope that good men will always stand courageously to fight back the darkness. She gives us a world clearly defined between good and evil, heroes and villains, and lets us pick sides.
In Go Set a Watchman Lee leaves us absolutely nowhere to stand.
The book revolves around Scout’s return to Maycomb for an annual visit in her late twenties, and her subsequent unraveling when she realizes an evil bigotry in all the people she respected and loved. Her world shatters when she sees her revered Atticus sitting among men spewing vicious and racist talk. She watches the man who has been her conscience say nothing in the face of evil, and it undoes her. For all her life, she has believed him a hero and finds him a man.
So do we.
Due to the rarely repeated circumstances surrounding the publication of these two books, we actually get to experience the breakdown that Scout endures. We watch our idol, our god, our fearless warrior fall before our eyes. We gulp for air as the world closes in over us, and when Scout tries to run and Uncle Jack slaps her across the mouth, we feel the pain sear our souls.
Because he wasn’t just Scout’s Atticus. He was ours.
And when we find out that someone capable of so much good is also capable of evil, that knowledge destroys us. Even if you try logically telling yourself that the two books aren’t intended to go together, it doesn’t matter. The damage is done. We feel the pain of Atticus’ betrayal just like Scout.
But isn’t that how evil usually is? Isn’t it usually nuanced among us? Isn’t it usually intertwined with things we love, things we cling to, things we want to defend at any cost? When Lee destroys Atticus for us in this book, we find ourselves faced with the question: what do we do when we love a racist? Who do we emulate in a world where there are no perfect heroes but also no abject villains? How do we fight wrong when we love those who do it? How do we—how does Scout—go on living, fighting, and believing when we have been betrayed by those who taught us the very definition of right and wrong?
This is, perhaps, an even more valuable lesson then what we gained from To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus in this first book taught us that sometimes you fight the battles you know you will lose because it is always right to fight for good. Atticus in the second book shows us that sometimes the hardest battle to fight is figuring out how to disentangle the good and evil from those surrounding us, those we love. It’s figuring out what to attack when the truth hits so close to home. We have to ask ourselves if the two portrayals of Atticus could possible be the same person. We want to say no, of course not, but I think we all know it is entirely plausible.
Ultimately, Atticus’ unveiling makes us accept that sometimes the evil isn’t out there — it is among us. It is in those we love. It is in ourselves.
The end of the book is unsettling, as it should be. Scout wants to run, wants to flee Maycomb and all its nuanced sin, its conflicting areas of shadow and light, right and wrong, past and present. That would be the easy thing to do. But she is urged to consider coming back, to consider dwelling in this dangerous margin, to consider staying in the shadow until she can help others find their way into the light.
We too face this decision. We can run back to our beloved Atticus and his unsullied reputation. Or we can face the reality that none are too heroic to fall. We can turn to our own little corners of the world, our own Maycombs, and find a way to sort it out.
“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”
― Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
Have any of you finished Go Set a Watchman? What are your thoughts?
Thanks for writing this! I can’t decided if I want to read Watchman or not. I’m torn. I agree that good books sometimes tear, but I don’t think I can handle too much of that at this particular moment.
I also loved Mockingbird, but the details aren’t all fresh in my mind anymore. So you think it would be advisable to re-read Mockingbird first? Or not?
Thanks for the honest review. It’s full of helpful truth!
I would read Watchman as it’s own book. I was planning to read Mockingbird again before starting the new one and am now glad I didn’t. I think it allowed me to experience the story as Jean Louise does and give Watchman a chance to be read objectively.
You should read it sometime! Honestly, I don’t think you need to reread Mockingbird. (At least, not for the specific purpose of reading this one… an annual rereading because it is awesome is another thing.) They aren’t prequel/sequel, so it is more just that you retain the overall sentiment of how much you loved Atticus that is important for my version of reading it.
You articulate my feelings about this book completely. I was talking to my aunt about it and said that I think that it is believable that an Atticus exists who would defend an African American man in court who he believes to be innocent, but still fight desegregation. People are more complicated than the boxes we would like to put them in. It’s okay to love and admire people who are imperfect.
So true- we are a complicated confusing mess!!!
Yes! Your argument is spot on. You’ve hit the nail on the head!
Thanks! I think there are many ways to read this (and any) book, but this is the experience I had!
Hannah….! I read lot stories on your blog, you writes touching article i really like … Thanks
I think you’re right, I don’t think the book would be what it is if we hadn’t read and loved Mockingbird, and because of that feel some kind of ownership of Atticus. I can’t imagine understand Jean Louise and her despair in Watchman if I hadn’t grown to know the Scout of Mockingbird, if that makes sense? Either way, it felt familiar, it felt like I was returning to Maycomb too and passing mentions of people like the Cunninghams or Mrs Dubose felt familiar. Glad I read it!
So true. If you had never read Mockingbird, you just couldn’t understand how Jean Louise’s world TOTALLY FALLS APART!
And like you, I really loved being back in Maycomb. : )