The greatness of literature can be found in the characters. When you read a story you become enamored with the actions of the antagonist and the protagonist, and even the secondary characters that carry the story along. The goal of any good writer is to create characters that the reader can identify with and if given the chance in real life could spend an afternoon kicking around town.
Fitzgerald did this with Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway. The reader identifies with Nick because we have all had that one person in our life whose lifestyle we have longed for. While at the same time, the reader wants to be best friends with Jay Gatsby. My favorite character in The Great Gatsby is Jay Gatsby himself. His self-made, American Dream, rise to riches is something in my own life I have had moments of longing for.
The same is true when I read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Her only published book, until 2014, was a wonderfully crafted piece of art. I love, to this day, To Kill A Mockingbird, and I will forever love it. The reason I love this book is because of one character: Atticus Finch.
In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch stood as the typical embodiment of manhood. He had lost his wife previously in his marriage; exactly when, we are not specifically told. All we know is that he is raising his two children, Jem and Jean Louise or Scout. Throughout the story, as told through the eyes of Scout, Atticus is positioned as a hero to his young daughter. She is constantly relaying to the reader her fondness of her father, as he sits in their family room reading, often reading to her, or the way that he relates to others around town. It is from a decision that Atticus makes in choosing to defend a Negro who is accused of rape, that the reader is endeared to Atticus. His attitude and belief that all men were created equal, and should be treated as such under the law is a tremendous take away from To Kill A Mockingbird.
After having read To Kill A Mockingbird, I fell in love with and carried a deep respect for the man that Atticus Finch was. He was portrayed as a very even-keeled, well educated, rarely emotional and strongly valued man. It was these values he is continuously teaching to young Scout as she makes her way through life in Maycomb County. In To Kill A Mockingbird you leave the pages of that book believing that Atticus Finch was a man that is a great example to all men.
When the estate of Ms. Lee decided to release the "parent novel of To Kill A Mockingbird", it was met with a tremendous amount of controversy. People recalled Ms. Lee's desire to have nothing else published, or pointed to the fact that Go Set A Watchman would smear the legacy of the beloved To Kill A Mockingbird. The controversy pushed me to the fringes on the book; I was ecstatic to have another possible masterpiece from Harper Lee, but after reading the news that surrounded it, my vigor turned more to apathy.
Being in a Target around Thanksgiving, waiting for my family to finish some shopping, I saw the book, a Starbucks at the front, and decided that there was no better way to pass the time. Needless to say, I bought the book, read three pages, they finished shopping and I did not pick it up again until January of this year. After starting again, it took me thirteen days to finish it.
The big question that I think needs to be answered as we approach what I believe to be possibly the best message in any book I have read, is does Go Set A Watchman smear the legacy of To Kill A Mockingbird? Bringing in no other controversy, such as "did Harper Lee even write it?” I can say in my opinion this book not only kept the legacy of To Kill A Mockingbird intact but, almost unbelievably, enhanced it.
Watchman is set in Maycomb County nearly two decades after Mockingbird concluded. Readers are introduced once again Jean Louise "Scout" Finch as she travels back from New York to Maycomb, Alabama. The reader is also introduced again to Aunt Alexandra, the beloved Atticus Finch and finds out within the first chapter of the book that her brother Jem died, seemingly of a heart attack. Jean Louise is a grown up version of Scout, who continuously is reminded of her days of yore in Maycomb.
As the story progresses, Jean Louise becomes aware of the fact that Maycomb has become gripped in the middle of a divisive, civil rights initiated, government ordinance. Exasperated by the frequent ambulance chasing of the NAACP, the citizens of Maycomb, unknown to Jean Louise upon her arrival, have splintered. Even her beloved Calpurnia is affected by the actions of her fellow Maycombians and treats Jean Louise upon a visit to her with a cold, dismissive attitude.
This dismissal comes after Jean Louise has followed her father and pseudo-boyfriend to a City Council meeting, which is basically a cloak and dagger Klan meeting. The meeting, in fact, is the springboard off which the action of the book jumps. Thrown into confusion, Jean Louise goes on a mission to discover what the hell happened to her hometown. And it all culminates in a meeting with her father.
After having had lunch with her uncle, Dr. Finch, a new character introduced in Watchman, who becomes the wise old sage that sets Jean Louise straight, she quickly sets off to her father's office and the stage is set for the showdown between father and daughter.
In the dialogue between Jean Louise and her father, the reader is torn between the Atticus Finch they were endeared to in To Kill A Mockingbird and the one that persists on the pages of Watchman. Throughout a reading of Watchman one will be consistently aware that due to the Civil Rights Movement and actions taken by the Federal Government, race relations in Maycomb have been strained.
The showdown in Atticus' office comes to a head when Jean Louise accuses her father of being a racist and having never truly loved her. The basis for these accusations is the fact that she has witnessed him at the meeting where a known Klan member addressed them. Also, she is confused on how he could have let her grow up thinking the things she did towards those of another color, knowing full well the way he felt towards the race. She jumps to conclusions and really attacks her aging father on this issue. How dare he feel the way he felt and let her ignorantly grow up treating everyone equally? The rug has been quickly removed from under her feet, and the childhood to which she so desperately clung is beginning to crumble. Not only has her childhood been ruined, but also the one person she so adamantly admired, and nearly worshiped, her father, is not the man she thought he was. While reading this portion of the book, I became Scout. I completely sympathized with her and thought, there is no way the Atticus Finch that I idolized could think this way. The man who had stood at the forefront of a racial controversy in To Kill A Mockingbird, and had been the symbol of one of the greater literary lesson ever written is a fraud. Jean Louise leaves the office in a hurry, heads back to the house to pack her things and leave. And I wanted to leave with her.
Before heading to the lesson that I think was so wonderfully taught to Jean Louise and the reader towards the end of the book, a further discussion needs to be had on the title, Go Set a Watchman. Early on in the book, the reader is in church with Jean Louise and she hears the preacher read a passage from the book of Isaiah, chapter 21, verse 6, that states, "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth." (p.95). In the biblical context, the Israelites were being told to set a watchman on their city walls to recount all of the good or bad that is taking place in the cities surrounding them. In the passage, the watchman sees the destruction of Babylon. Thus, the premise laid out in chapter five of Go Set a Watchman subtly explains that worldviews and heroes will mostly likely come crumbling down, just like Babylon did.
Picking back up in the saga of Jean Louise and her father, the reader finds Jean Louise quickly packing her things and leaving the house. As she is about to enter the car from which she will depart, her uncle, Dr. Finch, stops her. Unwilling to listen to him and calm down, Dr. Finch gives her the old right hook and knocks her out. Once he has her inside, and she comes to, he begins to explain this new world she has so quickly found herself in.
Dr. Finch gathers Jean Louise into the family room of the house, gives her a glass of whiskey to wake her up and then begins to explain, "every man is an island Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscious. There is no such thing as a collective conscious." (p. 265) He continues to explain that somewhere when she was younger, presumably the time that she witnessed Atticus defend Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, she fastened her conscious to her father’s, "like a barnacle" (p. 265). Scout has been, to this point in her life, living with her father's conscious, and viewed the world through the lens that he had held in front of her eyes. Now with this new revelation in front of her, she did not know how to function in the world. Her worldview and her hero had all been a creation of her living and thinking like her father.
Dr. Finch went on to explain that he and Atticus both knew there would come a day that would set Jean Louise free of her bondage to her father's conscious, and he states that essentially her old conscious would have to die, or Atticus would have to kill it himself. Thus, when she came across that City Council meeting, Atticus did not try to stop her, nor did he quiet her when she was berating him in his office. That was her moment of death to her old conscious, and her new conscious being birthed.
Jean Louise was not wrong about her father, the book is very clear that Atticus was not happy with the Civil Rights Movement, and to a sense did consider those of color to be of a lesser standing than he. However, Dr. Finch, in explaining to Jean Louise tells her, your father went to Klan meetings in order to know exactly who it was under the hoods, and he does not condone their actions of beatings and hangings. Dr. Finch states,
"...the Klan can parade around all it wants, but when it starts bombing and beating people, don't you [Jean Louise] know who'd be the first to try and stop it...The law is what he lives by. He'll do his best to prevent someone from beating up somebody else, then he'll try to stop no less the Federal Government...but remember this, he'll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law." (p. 269).
To end their conversation, Dr. Finch compares Jean Louise's actions her that of her father’s, and tells her that just like her daddy tackles injustice, so too did she "[turn] and tackled no less than her own tin god." (p.269). And in this statement shows Jean Louise and the reader the simplest, yet most profound of all literary lessons: tin gods will fail you.
Tin is one of the weakest metals known to exist. It has the lowest melting point of any other metal. The use of tin as an example of the heroes we place on a pedestal is a great analogy. Even though in life there are people we should look up to and aspire to be, even if they are literary characters, we must remember they are still human. No man or woman is entirely perfect and if we attach our conscious to theirs and create our own tin gods we will soon be disappointed. When we look at the character of Atticus Finch, does he stand for good? Clearly that answer is yes. But is he perfect? Obviously no. He is a tin god that, when faced with the fire of societal equality, melted. It is important that we have heroes, and it is necessary that we only allow these heroes to influence us, yet not let them control our entire thinking. Every man and woman is an island, we establish our own convictions and our own worldviews and this is the beautiful thing about being alive. We function each and every day in the world because of the diversity that we share; it is something that we should be celebrating and enjoying, not fighting and berating each other over.
I sincerely hope that you will read Go Set A Watchman because in it the reader learns that each one of us has a life to live and that life is the responsibility of no one else but ourselves. We all have tin gods, and most of them well deserving, but we must be careful that when faced with the fire of controversy and they begin to melt, that we are prepared for it and seek to exude grace towards them. In this, you can love uninhibited and fully appreciated each man, woman, or child that has been placed in your path. And really, that is what life is all about.