Go Set a Watchman

Issue section: 
(405)

This was Harper Lee’s first attempt at writing a novel. When she took it to the publishers they told her they wanted the story alluded to in the many flashbacks of the main character Jean Louise (Scout)’s childhood, and so To Kill a Mockingbird was written.

Go Set a Watchman was never intended as the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird so those who read it as such will be disappointed.

At its core, it is a depiction of a small town in the American South desperately trying to cling to its old ways set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and a changing society; so, of course, racism is a part of it. However, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman does not feel like an anti-racist work.

The biggest surprise is that Atticus Finch, once literature’s favourite liberal anti-racist — defender of a black man accused of raping a white woman — is now an organised racist opposing desegregation and votes for black people.

Reading To Kill a Mockingbird first means sharing in Jean Louise’s anger, shame and disappointment in her father, Atticus. Although disappointing, Atticus’s racism is not unrealistic and Harper Lee does a good job of displaying contradictory consciousness.

Atticus defended against the rape charge so that he could live with himself peacefully because he knew the boy was innocent and could not allow him to be killed or spend his life in prison. This, of course, does not mean that he views black people as his equals; he does not want them in his town’s schools, theatres or churches; to him “white is white and black’s black”.

During the course of the story we are told by the narrator that when Atticus defended the black boy, he did so “with an instinctive distaste so bitter”. Jean Louise later drives that point home as she angrily realises that he did not do it out of compassion but because of his belief in justice.

At the end of the novel we discover that the book is not really about the racism at all but rather about Jean Louise’s relationship with her father, and racism is merely the issue sparking what is deemed a necessary break from him.

As her uncle explains, “You had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity.” This is disappointing because it marginalises the issue of racism, turning it into a tool for her self-discovery.

Having been given these insights into the consciousness of Atticus Finch, I am left with the question, will I be able to go back and read To Kill a Mockingbird in the same way as before?