Before I write this review I have to post a bit of a disclaimer: I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird since high school. When I read it, I didn’t love it. I’ve never held it—or its central hero—on a high pedestal, so I don’t have a strong attachment to it and it’s possible that I’m misremembering certain aspects of it.
Wow, what a ride this was. I had so many thoughts while reading this book. Let me just put this out there first: As a standalone novel, Go Set a Watchman isn’t very good. Nothing really happens. The childhood flashbacks are, for the most part, wholly unnecessary. It’s didactic as anything I’ve ever read, yet Harper Lee fails to flesh out her most interesting themes. What was most interesting for me was reconciling it with To Kill a Mockingbird—which, I’ll fully admit, is a much better work of literature. What I’m about to say and then expand upon in this “review” is a very unpopular opinion: I think the evolution of Atticus Finch is sort of brilliant—whether or not Lee intended the kind of analysis that’s about to follow (and I don’t think she did). For
If To Kill a Mockingbird is the cushy, comfortable novel about well-meaning white people within the context of the long, dark history of racism in America, Go Set a Watchman is its woke older sister. Well, in theory, at least, though not so much in Lee’s execution.
In TKAM, Atticus is that classic white person who just wants everyone to get along. He preaches love and understanding of anyone, no matter what—even Hitler! Even the white racist who just tried to lynch a black man. Or, to use a more timely example: Even Donald Trump. Even his racist supporters. He doesn’t really want to dig deep into the realities of racism or challenge himself or those around him. He’s comfortable with white supremacy. He wants to feel good about himself—like he’s a virtuous person doing the right thing, even though he’s unwilling to rock the boat in any truly meaningful way. But for all intents and purposes he’s generally regarded by white readers to be a hero. The epitome of morality and goodness. He is the ultimate White Savior.
Needless to say, the revelation in Go Set a Watchman that Atticus is PRETTY FUCKING RACIST pissed off a lot of people. It shattered that long-held conception of a literary hero. But here’s the thing: when you think about it, even in the context of TKAM, it’s really not all that shocking.
In GSAW, it’s no longer the 1930s. Now it’s the 1960s and black people are actively trying to disrupt the status quo of white supremacy and racism in pursuit of equal rights. And Atticus isn’t down with this. In fact, he’s a regular at his local Citizens’ Councils meetings (a group of white supremacists), he loathes the NAACP, he opposes integration and he thinks black people are “still in their childhood as a people.”
I know a lot of white readers felt very cheated by this development. Atticus Finch is a “Good Person.” He’s a “Hero.” He can’t be a “Racist.” And yet, I can’t help but feel like this evolution of Atticus Finch makes total sense. It’s actually pretty consistent with his character, and it isn’t really such a stark diversion. Atticus was fine when he got to be the Good White Man defending an innocent black man in the 1930s (see: white paternalism), but now that it’s the 1960s and white supremacy is being challenged and he’s feeling threatened by that, we’re given insight into his deep-seated prejudices and his true self. And that’s just the thing: both of these versions of him (TKAM and GSAW) are his true self; it’s just that a lot of readers don’t like having to acknowledge that.
But I think we need to stop deluding ourselves: Atticus Finch was never the beacon of virtue and morality that we wanted him to be. He was a white savior who upheld, rather than resisted, elements of systemic racism and white supremacy. And his defending Tom Robinson in the pursuit of justice doesn’t change that. By today’s standards, he might be the person who celebrates a white-washed, sanitized version of MLK and doesn’t believe himself to be racist, yet denounces Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization.
In GSAW, Atticus is the same person he has always been. And the collective outrage regarding the so-called tarnishing of a white savior whom so many regarded as a literary hero may actually be more of a reflection of the outraged readers and their own self-imposed blinders and comfort zones than anything else.
It’s not easy facing difficult truths about people we have come to love. Jean Louise grapples with this in GSAW when she learns about her father’s racism. And we, as readers, must also confront this reality about our former hero. This feels especially timely right now given our current political climate, wherein many folks are struggling to reconcile the love they have for their family members and friends with the shocking reality that these people voted for a racist, misogynistic demagogue and may possess these unsavory qualities themselves.
Atticus is a reminder to us all that racism isn’t always relegated to the dregs of society. You can be a good father…and still be racist. You can do good in your life…and still be racist.
Unfortunately, many of these important points that arise in Go Set A Watchman are ultimately addressed in an extremely disappointing way: Jean Louise’s uncle calls her a bigot for rejecting her father’s racist opinions (WHAT?!) and then she ultimately feels bad about the things she said to Atticus and concludes that maybe he’s not so bad after all. I hope that for those of us today who are confronting uncomfortable truths about the people in our lives, we don’t let them off the hook quite so easily.
In conclusion now that I’m at 1,000+ words here, as much as I found GSAW to be a mediocre standalone novel, I can’t help but love that it has made readers (myself included, of course) look back and re-evaluate a universally revered childhood book from a new—and yes, uncomfortable—perspective.