A Controversial Classic?

Originally published in qmunicate magazine, issue 123

When news of Harper Lee’s death broke, talk of her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird dominated discussion. This is understandable. The book gained worldwide fame, and sold millions of copies. It is rare for a classic novel to maintain the love of its readers throughout the generations despite its ubiquity. I even made it through my higher English personal study with my love for Scout, Jem and Atticus intact. But Lee’s most recent novel, Go Set a Watchman, was absent from much of the commentary surrounding her death.

The announcement that Harper Lee would be publishing a second book in summer 2015 shocked book lovers worldwide. After the success of her first novel, Lee swore she would not release another book in her lifetime. However a scathing Guardian review prior to the books official release date shocked readers even more. According to the review, hero and idol of many Atticus Finch had joined the KKK. The disgust felt by fans was clear. How could Atticus Finch the arbiter of civil rights, the only man brave enough to stand up and fight for Tom Robinson, be a racist? Many chose not to read the book at all. After Lee’s death, I would urge them to change their minds. There is much to learn from Lee’s second release.

The problem is, Atticus Finch was never supposed to be a hero. To Kill a Mockingbird was not the story of a brave lawyer’s defence of a black man. The story has always been Scout’s to tell. Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is about the loss of childhood innocence, and Go Set a Watchman just continues this theme. Mockingbird follows Scout through her turbulent first years of school, dealing with the backlash of the Maycomb townsfolk against her father. In Watchman, we catch up with a twentysomething Scout, fresh off the train from her new home of New York. The perspective of the protagonist has changed not only due to age but also context. Whilst Mockingbird shows Atticus and the town of Maycomb through an adoring child’s eyes, Watchman views them through the eyes of a young woman who has grown used to the more forward thinking attitudes of New York City. The perspectives of the two books were always going to be different.

When you really consider the events described in To Kill a Mockingbird, the character of Atticus has not drastically changed between the two novels. Despite the trial of Tom Robinson creating division of opinion, Atticus never changes his relations with the population of Maycomb. In fact he shows a remarkable amount of tolerance for those with racist attitudes. From his famous admiration for the courage of dying neighbour Mrs Dubose, to his friendly exchange with the mob outside the jail holding Tom Robinson. Atticus is often shown to let prejudice slide.

At its heart, Go Set a Watchman is a story of tolerance. Scout must let go of her unfaltering admiration for Atticus, and so must the reader. The story particularly resonated for me as a woman in my early twenties. At some point during this period of our lives, we must realise that our parents are not perfect. They do not know everything and they don’t always have the answers. They are flawed human beings, just like everyone else. That is when you can begin to have a real adult relationship with them. Ultimately, one that will prove far more rewarding than the one shaped by your childhood perceptions.

Since I am trying to encourage people to read the book, I will not spoil the plot for readers. I will let you read it and draw your own conclusions on the Guardians claim that Atticus becomes an active member of the KKK. For me, one particular sentiment expressed in the book sums up the tone of the story as a whole. Your friends need you more when they are wrong than when they are right. In the age of quick reactions and internet outrage, this is something we could all do with bearing in mind. There is always reasoning behind someone’s point of view, and your disagreement doesn’t invalidate that. Go Set a Watchman provides an important lesson in the value of considering the point of view of others. Even if you don’t enjoy the book, Harper Lee said it better than me. “The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one that makes you think”. This book certainly does that, and it is well worth a read.


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