In my previous blog, Writing Honestly About the Past, I explored the idea that a strong character is one who “acts within that which constrains him/her.” I interpret “constrains” to refer to the external political and social forces, as well as the internal emotions that influence the decisions and actions of any character. To a large extent, it is how a character responds to those constraints–both internal and external– that determines his/her fate in any given context of history.
I think that’s a core issue in Harper Lee’s highly contested novel, Go Set a Watchman, which I finally got up the courage to read about a month ago. I, like all the others, did not want my vision of Atticus Finch tarnished by viewing him as a segregationist.
After reading the book, nothing about To Kill A Mockingbird has changed for me. It is still the cherished story with a noble character who inspires, a beautifully written piece of prose that I want my grandchildren and all school children to read.
There has been a great deal of hype surrounding the book, such as whether Harper Lee was exploited by the publishers, or whether Watchman should be considered a sequel to Mockingbird. Some–including highly acclaimed author Ron Rash–have stated that the book should never have been published. Debate notwithstanding, I believe that the story is worth reading for its universal insight.
Here is my short analysis of Go Set a Watchman if you care to read it:
The reader identifies with Jean Louise Finch (Scout), as she is forced to recognize in herself, the same bigotry which she despises in her family and the leaders of her racially segregated hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.
We who live in this highly polarized modern world have a lot to learn from Watchman. I’ll admit that this book is not as satisfying or uplifting as To Kill a Mockingbird. We don’t get our classic hero–our Gregory Peck-type Atticus Finch, who stands up for justice regardless of the cost. Let’s face it, Mockingbird was a “Camelot” story which we will always cherish and teach to our children and go to when we want to read beautifully written literary fiction with a noble character to inspire us. Nothing can change that.
Go Set a Watchman is unsettling and uncomfortable because, if we are honest, it convicts every one of us. It forces us to look deep inside and identify in ourselves those traits which we find so objectionable in others. It confronts us with the ugly fact that we are all complicit, albeit in varying degrees, in contributing to intolerance and oppression in our communities.
The lesson learned from Watchman is that by confronting our own bigotry and narrow-mindedness, we can no longer demonize and blame others for the social and political problems of the day. We are now free to drop our self-righteous, “us against them” diatribes, and exert our energies toward finding common ground and lasting solutions. We sometimes discover that peeling back the layers of bigotry exposes the sweeter qualities of love and loyalty and fairness that also exist in ourselves and others. In that sense, the book is hopeful and optimistic, and I am glad that it was published.