Et tu, Atticus?

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been in news, mostly for non-literary reasons. There is the controversy around it being just a rejected first draft of what finally became her only published work, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. There is a controversy about the way HarperCollins got the rights to the book (if it is not a draft of TKMB, that is). And so on. I was in two minds about reading the book, given that it could well have been an exploitation of an author who is not in a state to make the decision, but I knew that I was going to read it eventually. I did it way before eventually.

I’m now ambivalent about what I think about it! Or maybe not.

While TKMB is a simple, morality tale, with clearly defined hero, with Go Set a Watchman we get the grey shades of reality. In a sense that’s to be expected. The former is first person narration of Scout, a young girl learning right and wrongs from her perfect father, the latter is the reality couple of decades down the line, told in third person, with the girl a young women now, living in a big city (New York), and in a position to be much more objective about her hometown, and her family.

Spoilers ahead!! Although they’re really not spoilers if you have been reading at all. Everyone knows the central revelation of Go Set a Watchman. But let me retract a bit.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about moral authority. In it I mentioned that Atticus Finch is my idea (or rather, an ideal) of the model parent, a moral authority figure. I’m sure I was not the first one to say that. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the last one, if this book wasn’t published, that is …

This is what I said about Atticus:

Atticus is in so many ways a father I’d want to be. Arch-liberal, understanding, clear in his thinking, gentle, approachable, trusting, always there when needed and yet ready to dissolve in the background when not needed,  never over-reaching or over meddling.

And yet, and yet, Atticus is the moral compass. By walking the walk, the unglamorous ‘right’ walk, the everyday, non-heroic walk, he is setting an example for his kids to follow.

Nearly two thirds into Go Set a Watchman, there is nothing to contradict that. Then comes the shocker. Atticus, the same Atticus who epitomized “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” in TKMB, is a closet racist, a white supremacist.

Listen, Scout, you’re upset by having seen me doing something you think is wrong, but I’m trying to make you understand my position. Desperately trying. This is merely for your own information, that’s all: so far in my experience, white is white and black’s black. So far, I’ve not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. I’m seventy-two years old, but I’m still open to suggestion.


“Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”  [..]

“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”

Of course, there are different ways to look at this.

One: the two Atticus are different characters. After all, these are two different books. The outcome of trial of Tom Robinson, for instance, is different in two books. This also seems to go with the theory that this one is just a draft that eventually became TKMB.

Two: Some events in two decades changed Atticus. Although the novel doesn’t give us enough to understand such a drastic transition. Which gives us:

Three: Atticus was a closet racist all along, and fought for Tom’s rights because of his ideas of justice wouldn’t allow an innocent man to be hanged/punished for something he didn’t do.

It’s this three, which is most troubling to accept for fans for TKMB, going by the reactions and reviews. How could Atticus, the paragon of virtue, of justice, deny a whole race something while he’s ready to put his career on line to save one from what is just an end result of a systemic injustice propagated in the name of the same beliefs (of superiority of one race)?

A big part of growing up is about coming to terms with the idea of many in one. One doesn’t need to look beyond our own forefathers, to understand that it’s possible to be extremely just in one sphere, and to be unjust (through their actions/beliefs) in another. So in that sense it’s hardly a surprise. And yet it’s a letdown of sorts.

What is disappointing about Go Set a Watchman, is its ending, which didn’t seem to live up to the conflict. Scout is almost apologetic of having judged her father, after a less than convincing post-facto defense by his brother, Dr. Jack Finch. Yes, I’ll come to that. Because that’s the real point of this post — a natural followup to that post on moral authority.

The question is, what happens when you grow up with an infallible moral authority figure, to learn one day that it was based on a projection/part information, or a lie, or a contradiction? Scout says it better than I could:

I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it

The truth is, looking up to an unfailing moral authority can stunt your growth (and this is exactly the logic used by Dr. Jack Finch to convince Scout that this was necessary to cut the moral umbilical chord that was binding her to her father, but it doesn’t cut …) as an independent, moral authority. And in that sense, it’s better to have the moral authority in your life to be imperfect, for even you to see, as you grow up, that this is not all. That your conscience is your own, in the end. And you need to work to that, all your life.

Final verdict on the book: a nice read as a companion to TKMB, but nothing you’d regret not reading. On some levels, it is more nuanced than a morality tale that TKMB is, but it has neither it’s energy, or it’s lyrical flow. It seems like the first draft refurbished into a novel for a quick buck. But it’s still an interesting read, more for ruminating on the lines of this post. I’m not complaining. Although I’d give it maybe 2 out of 5 on pure literary merit.


PS: The cover of the book throws a curious coincidence. The titles of the two books are of similar form (To/Go Kill/Set A Mockingbird/Watchman). Hinting at the first draft published at book theory, again. For all you know, it’s settled now, already.

PS2: I wonder what would have Gregory Peck done if he had to act in the movie on Watchman? Would he, like Jody Foster in Hannibal case, have refused to portray an Atticus 2.0 which completely wiped out the 1.0 version in couple of paragraphs?


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