May 9, 2017

SHI REVIEWED | Go Set A Watchman

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Courtesy of Alexander Nachaj

Atticus Finch is racist. That’s the shocking revelation in Harper Lee’s sequel to the beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Through a modernist blurring of the first person and third person omniscient, Lee brings 26-year old Jean Louise (remember Scout?) from New York City back home to Maycomb for a visit. Yes, the same sleepy Maycomb that she grew up in; the town whose all-white jury her father Atticus faced 17 years ago to defend an innocent black man accused of rape.

Fast forward to the present: The South is in uproar over the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Ed ruling mandating school desegregation. Jean Louise’s sobering discovery of her father’s real attitude towards black people puts into question the iconic Atticus-the-good-father, Atticus-the-doer-of-no-evil, Atticus-the-defender-of-justice that we all have come to adore. In case the reader is wondering, Jean Louise’s discovery is not ambiguous, as if she had misheard Atticus speak or formed a hasty conclusion about her father out of context. Atticus is clear where he stands on the issue of segregation: “so far in my experience, white is white and black’s black.”

Like our protagonist, I felt crushed by her realization of her father’s views. No, more than crushed. I felt cheated and lied to in Mockingbird. In that novel, Atticus gave us an enduring adage that even President Obama repeated: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I read Mockingbird in middle school as a poignant illustration of the importance of showing tolerance and empathy towards others. I have a hard time believing in its meaning now, in light of Watchman’s developments. I shared a past memory with Jean Louise, the memory of a courtroom scene in which Atticus stood up for justice. But the new discovery shatters the significance of that memory, for what does the past mean when it is reimagined so incongruously with its former meaning? For this reason, I found myself cheering for Jean Louise when she finally confronts her father. Confused and wounded, I read my own rage into her words:

“I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief—nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.”

Vowing to disown Atticus and Maycomb, Jean Louise threatens to return to New York and never return. If the novel had ended here, it would have left me devastated, but reflective: Jean Louise has become her own woman, no longer the little girl who worships Atticus and takes his word as absolute truth.  

But the story is only half over. Enter Dr. Finch, Jean Louise’s uncle, who accuses her of running from conflict and confrontation. He helps her to see that her rage and disillusionment should be the beginning, rather than the end, of a conversation. Her self-righteous anger has blinded her from seeing what her father has to stay. In fact, for over half the length of the book, she has avoided speaking to Atticus about the matter at all. Dr. Finch asks her a chilling question: Does running make reality go away? He leaves her a one-liner that is as trenchant as it is memorable: “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”

Importantly, Dr. Finch also brings the novel’s title to relevance. A watchman is someone who is vigilant when all others are asleep. It is a job that requires one to observe one’s environment closely to see signs of change and danger. It is also work that requires a level of stamina. A good watchman does not leave his post because he is tired or bored by the scenery. I read Dr. Finch as insinuating that Jean Louise be the watchman, the voice that awakens the conscience of her town. The novel’s title is in the declarative, after all.

Having read Mockingbird in middle school and now Watchman on the eve of college graduation, I am impressed by Lee’s skill in imparting simple morals through nuanced storylines. To me, Watchman’s purpose is not to dwell on the revelation that Atticus is racist. That would be a sorry story indeed. In my view, this story, as was the first, is really about Jean Louise. It’s a story about the homecoming of a young woman who must face the truth instead of run from it. It’s a story that shows why reactionary indignation is not enough to make what we know to be wrong go away. It’s a story about standing up for what you know is right, yes, but also caring enough to settle down and do something about it.