Ever since the first time I picked up a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird I have seen Atticus Finch as a symbol of everything which is good in humanity. To me he was the literary hero unchallenged by any other. A man who could do no wrong. The father figure whom every reader wished would leap off of the page and offer his own brand of patient, tolerant advice. The southern lawyer who had real courage because he knew he was licked before he began but he began anyway. I don’t even think I’ve ever looked up to my own parents the way I looked up to the figure of Atticus Finch.
And then Go Set a Watchman happened — and boy did it hurt. This novel tracks a now grown Scout as she tries to navigate the emotional minefield which ensues when she discovers that her father was not the man she believed him to be. He is no longer symbolic of all the good in the world. He has been pulled off of his pedestal and stripped back to the image of a flawed and unsympathetic elderly man. Jean Louise now has to learn how to stick by her own ideals in a world where the man she saw as her moral compass has become corrupt and endorses all of the feelings she so despises. Go set a Watchman is about growing up and realizing that your own parents are no more than flawed human beings too, learning how to stand by your own values — set your own watchman if you will — and still be able to live alongside those you disagree with.
Some were happy to see the much admired Atticus Finch portrayed as a realistic person, warts and all. I was devastated. As we see Jean Louise’s childhood image of her father crumble before her very eyes so too did mine. As I read Harper Lee’s unassumingly gripping narrative I felt myself as if I had been betrayed by my own father — actually I felt it worse, as I had never idolized my own father nearly to the extent that I had Atticus Finch. Uncle Jack sums it up pretty well on page 265 when he tells Jean Louise:
As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.
And so it seems did we. We confused Atticus with God just like Scout, and Watchman — if it was actually ever intended by Lee to be published — is her bold move showing us the dangers and difficulties of looking back on our childhood and parents with rose-tinted glasses.
Bit of background here, what many have deemed a sequel to Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird was actually written before the original. Go Set a Watchman was initially an early draft for Mockingbird until Lee’s publisher set her to rewriting the tale, which exposes the deep racial tensions in the south, from a child’s perspective and setting it back from the fight for civil rights in the 1950’s to the height of segregation in the 1930’s. That then became the sensation that was To Kill a Mockingbird; the racism of the south exposed through the eyes of a child whose father teaches her never to judge another person by that which you can see on the surface. However, Watchman was the novel Lee had originally intended to write — one exploring the emotional struggle when someone you love and admire turns out to harbor elitist and prejudiced views. In other words doing what we all must do eventually: growing up and realizing that our parents are not quite who we thought they were. However, the irony of the situation is that had Go Set a Watchman come first its message would never have had the same impact that it does coming decades after the original. Generations have now read and grown with a dearly held love and admiration for the character of Atticus Finch and now in 278 pages Lee has ripped our idol away and forced us to grow up and see him corrupt and flawed — a far more painful realization than many of us have ever had to experience in real life with our own parents. Those of us who had read and loved Mockingbird for years feel Scout’s pain and heartbreak first hand as we watch her father’s heroism torn from us and we are unflinchingly exposed to the harsh reality of adulthood without even our beloved brother Jem, motherly figure of Calpurnia or childhood companion Dill left standing by our side. In reading To Kill a Mockingbird we were like children but with the publication of Go Set a Watchman we have landed suddenly in a painful, unwelcome and lonely adulthood.
Go Set a Watchman will never quite live up to the masterpiece which came before it, it’s just not as gripping or as heart-warming as the stunning original. However, rather than condemning this book for all that it didn’t do or didn’t live up to I will think of it as the adult version of To Kill a Mockingbird. The book which was messier, more complex and more raw than the simple, clean cut, almost childlike novel published some 55 years before. Watchman is Mockingbird grown up. It shows us exactly what that journey through adolescence into adulthood is — messy, complex and painful. Mockingbird will go down in history as the heart-warming, coming of age tale where Scout and Jem learn to try and understand other people and their motives. Watchman will go down in history as the honest tale showing that as we grow up we will all be let down by our parents, friends and neighbors as we realize that you can never wholly know another person.
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