After reading the initial reviews of Go Set A Watchman, as well sneaking a peek at the first chapter of the book (OH MY GOD JEM), I’ve come to the agonizing decision that I won’t read Go Set A Watchman. But it’s not for the reasons that you might think, so let me try to explain myself.
Hark the pleasant surprise when I received news in March 2015 that Harper Lee, the celebrated author of To Kill A Mockingbird, was to release the sequel to her literary masterpiece. In that moment that my brain registered that fact, I stared at the upstart Facebook post that had informed me in such an understated fashion, and my jaw hit the floor and it stayed there as my fingers took to pounding the keyboard in righteous pursuit of confirmation on the search engines. And guess what bruh? THIS WAS HAPPENIN’ FOR REALS.
Now I rarely become interested in new books for the sake of a trend or for the past achievements of an author. For example, I’m a religious Harry Potter fanatic, it annoys me when fans of the series hang on for dear life till the day that J.K. Rowling releases her next work. I mean, when J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy dropped, I hardly blinked–because I don’t believe in hero-worshipping something that doesn’t exist yet. Sure, I respect J.K. Rowling for her imagination, I don’t like to automatically assume that a good author’s next work will be brilliant because that’s how things become over-hyped.
But Go Set A Watchman is a different case. Long decades have passed since To Kill A Mockingbird was unleashed on the world, roaring and stirring up a storm. And because enough time had passed for the this novel to become worship-worthy, I was instantly curious and excited when I heard that a sequel was coming out. my curiosity had built enough that I was totally ready for a sequel to this classic.
Times have changed. We’ve moved on. We’re now eager for an adult Scout. We’re ready to accept change. We’re even ready to accept a bigoted Atticus Finch.
I’m not even sure that the words “bigotted” and “Atticus” ever belonged in the same paragraph, let alone in the same sentence, so what the hell are we talking about here? Who’s bigotted and who’s not perfect again? Atticus Finch was the character who gave us hope on so many incomprehensible levels in To Kill A Mockingbird–hope that parents can become positive guides in their children’s lives; hope that people will speak up for what’s right; hope that “good” is innate within us, but for Harper Lee to drop this bomb on us by revealing the dark side of Atticus, it’s very difficult to swallow.
Admittedly we knew very little of Atticus’ convictions or past before To Kill A Mockingbird, so Harper Lee could fairly argue that portraying Atticus as a racist in Go Set A Watchman isn’t far-fetched, and may even serve to give more insight and depth into Atticus’ character. Perhaps a more realistic depth. But here’s the thing–I love it when authors portray their characters in depth (hello, cynical realist here), so if I don’t feel the need to add darker shades and layers to Atticus, that means he WAS realistic enough, thank you very much.
See, the wonderful thing about the mind is that it’s able to color in all the details neglected by a book through a combination of both implication and imagination. Therefore, the Atticus Finch in my mind was already complex. In my mind, by the time that Atticus is his age in To Kill A Mockingbird, the extent of his maturity and wisdom is completely realistic for us to just leave it at that.
After all, no one is perfect in this world. Not everyone finds his or her moral footing right off the bat, not even Atticus, and we already know that without having to hammer that fact in. In that, there is no need for more complexity or facets to explain Atticus.
But Harper Lee unleashes this bomb upon us that Atticus might be racist, and that initially made me feel a bit disillusioned, perhaps even betrayed. I applaud Harper Lee for the risk that she’s taking with such a controversial move; I mean, knowing fully well that people will be mad about this new Atticus, she stuck with guts and that’s the true spirit of an author.
However, is the character “Atticus Finch” truly Harper’s alone to define and destroy at this point? Fifty-five years have passed since To Kill A Mockingbird, and in that time span, each one of our minds have come to project our own respective versions of Atticus Finch. We’ve colored him in, given him a voice, and allowed him to grow and age along with us, his shadow tagging alongside every step of our growth.
And he’s much more real and solid than an ordinary imaginary friend, because his voice and legacy is cemented in the pages of the most celebrated book of our time. Thus these decades were more than just a passage of time; it was an era in which Atticus Finch came to life became a personal mentor to all of us. We know him. I know him. For those of us who loved Atticus Finch in our troubled times as a mentor, teacher, guide, friend….we can’t help but feel a strangely defensive angst when Go Set A Watchman is imminent to raise doubt against his legacy and character.
I mean, remember when J.K. Rowling let drop the bomb that Albus Dumbledore, the wise headmaster of Hogwarts and forever the great guiding mentor to the titular character Harry Potter, was gay? Well, (laughs) people LOST THEIR MINDS. I mean, I was surprised too mind you, but the outrage wasn’t there for me as much the surprise that sexuality at all crossed with Dumbledore.
After all, intellectualism and sexuality don’t really mesh, but to find out that the greatest intellectual of them even had sexual desires…It was definitely at odds with my image of Dumbledore, but still reasonably within parameters for me to accept with relative ease. But a racist Atticus? That’s infinitely hard to accept, and my initial reaction to this news was that I hate this sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.
But after some thought, I realized–why should I hate this book? Let me tell you a quick story. When I was a little kid, my mom meant everything to me. She was (and still is) a kind, giving, and loving mother, but the day that I opened my eyes and realized that she was a prejudiced, racist, and bigoted person, despite all her incredibly beautiful qualities…it broke my heart.
I mean, to find that your role model was actually not the person you believed to be? Does this mean your own idealism was never achievable in the first place either?
And the answer to that is no–you can genuinely be kind, open-minded, AND bigoted at the same time.
I mean, even the best of human beings like Atticus are limited by his or her culture or generation, and that’s not up to any of us to judge or criticize; the era and social mindset you grow up in is out of your control. Therefore, it’s in this way that I think Harper Lee will appeal for such understanding for the bigots without necessarily supporting their cause–by making Atticus a victim of his generation, Go Set A Watchmen will extend the circle of empathy to those bigots who are also (paradoxically) trapped and hardened by the environment they lived in. That’s an infinitely commendable message.
So if you really think about it, Harper Lee is doing an amazing thing. Back in the 1960’s when To Kill A Mockingbird was released, the world overwhelmingly lacked the level of acceptance for the underdogs like blacks, homosexuals, and women, but this book opened the doors for them in that era.
But in 2015, there’ a new issue–the ball of acceptance is gaining momentum what with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, legalization of same-sex marriage, and LGBT movements. However, bigots in turn are now being hated by our generation, and Harper Lee, in releasing Go Set A Watchman in today’s culture, is soberly reminding us that hate is never the answer. No matter how misguided someone might be, tolerance, love, and acceptance is the answer she seems to be promoting in her new portrayal Atticus Finch, and the fact that she’s extending that circle of acceptance to bigots is definitely a hopeful and progressive in my opinion.
So why won’t I read Go Set A Watchman if I think it’s promoting such a beautiful message? Well sure, Harper Lee’s laudable intent almost had me bought, but the one reason that I’ve decided to lay off of this book (at least for now) is that I’m absolutely dreading that feeling of disillusionment I’ll have to relive through Scout when she realizes that Atticus is not the role model she thought he was.
I mean, even to this day, that disappointment and hurt I felt when I realized that my mother was a bigot never left me. Therefore, it almost would have been less painful if this book had focused on the events of Jem’s death or perhaps of how Atticus came to die because at least their moral legacies would have been preserved. But disillusionment in your role model takes a much longer time to heal, and I don’t have the courage to relive that feeling of hurt and regret again through Scout.
So day after days of deliberation, I’ve decided to lay off of Go Set A Watchman. Not now, not yet. I’m not ready for the heartbreak that’s sure to come when I read this book.
But instead, I’ll simply treasure the beautiful idea of Atticus Finch as he is, since he was enough of a realistic role model in To Kill A Mockingbird for me to revere and honor–and I choose that reality for now. I might sound like a coward, but believe you me when I say that I have the greatest respect and well wishes for this book, and it hasn’t even been released yet! And considering that I haven’t read Go Set A Watchman yet, I probably jumped to some laughably exaggerated conclusions…but even so, I’m laying off of this book for a while.
And maybe I’ll change my mind. Maybe I will read it someday; it’s not an entirely unwelcoming thought. But I want test the winds until my barometer tells me that it’s safe for me to poke my head out of the hole–and what a day it’ll be when I finally pluck up the courage to do so.
But today is not that day. So live on, Atticus Finch. I will cling to your legacy for just a while longer, until the day comes that I will have to finally meet the true you.