Scout, Atticus, and the NAACP: What’s Really Going On in Harper Lee’s New Book

I’m going to start this off with a spoiler warning, because the only way I can address this topic is to address the whole book. So if you’re one of the increasingly few people who have yet to read Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, stop now.

The lovely cover art will be a buffer between you and spoilers
The lovely cover art will be a buffer between you and spoilers

To start with, I want to address a minor issue with the book; that is, is it really a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird? I’ve thought about this pretty deeply — mainly because it was a topic of discussion as I was reading the book — and I’m willing to argue that it can, almost entirely, be considered a sequel. Now, I understand the issues inherent with this argument, namely that Watchman was discovered as an original draft of Mockingbird, before the latter became the literary phenomenon we know today. As I understand it, Lee’s editors asked her to rewrite the novel based around Jean Louise Finch — better known as Scout — and her childhood memories, presented in Watchman as flashbacks. So the counterargument levied against me is that the novel can’t really be seen as a sequel, because it was written first and wasn’t intended to be published. But I think regardless of that, Lee probably used Watchman as a framework for Mockingbird, a sort of guide as to the people her characters would become. Having an endpoint in mind gives you a better idea of where your characters have to go in order to reach that endpoint.

They have to go back to childhood

When it comes down to it, I think even though it wasn’t the intention, Watchman is in spirit a sequel. It’s not a perfect sequel, but it is essentially a sequel in all but intent. The continuity is there — if you read the two books back to back you can clearly trace the development of the characters. They are most definitely the same people. There’s one piece that doesn’t work, but I’ll get to that later. It’s my only major gripe with the book, but even that doesn’t even come close to ruining it.

I assume some of you read my point about continuity and the characters being the same characters and instantly got irked, at least. You might already be formulating an argument about how Atticus is a racist and it completely undermines his character. To you, I say politely that I don’t think you read the book closely enough and grasped all the details.

The moral and political themes of the book are very deeply nuanced, a stark contrast to Mockingbird, where the morality is clearly black and white and race is taken out of the equation. Atticus is the pinnacle of justice and goodness, crusading to save an innocent black man from a terrible fate. He fails but still has the moral high ground and it seems his way is the right way. Come Watchman, twenty years later (in the books’ time), and we see a country squabbling over integration and the right of blacks to vote, and a Maycomb County very concerned with keeping things the way they are. When Jean Louise, rarely called Scout in her adulthood, comes home and discovers the prevailing attitude — and that her father and friend/lover seem to be a part of it — she rails against it with all her might. She clings to her belief in black and white morality, her belief in the equality of all people — which Atticus himself instilled in her. And since the story is focused on her and her point of view, it’s easy to mistake Atticus for a racist facsimile of his former self.

Here’s the catch, the subtle points that no one seems to grasp. Maybe because they don’t want to see it, maybe because it’s layered in a lot of dense oration about philosophy and history. But here’s the deal: Atticus is playing a long game here. Jean Louise’s uncle tries to get this through to her, but she doesn’t understand until the very end. He tells her Atticus joined the Klan some forty years ago in order to learn who was in it and what the attitudes were. You have to remember, Atticus is a lawyer. He has to know the attitudes of the people whose beliefs go against the greater good, so that he can better argue against them when the time comes. It’s like James Bond sneaking into an enemy base in the guise of one of their agents, only to surprise them later with a bullet to the face.

Take your pick, they’ve all shot people

Jean Louise’s issues cut deeper than Atticus’ perceived break with morality, though. In Mockingbird, we see the world through the eyes of Scout, the child. Atticus is idealized; he’s her moral guardian, her guide to the world. In a word, he’s her Superman, and he can do no wrong. In Watchman, her uncle points this out to her, saying that she looked at him as a god, and now she’s learning that he’s only human, like her, and that she has to go out and make her own way and find her own views. This is an important point. Mockingbird is written in the first person, and we’re seeing the views and experiences of a child. The only Atticus we’ve known is the one that Scout describes, and that’s the only one she’s known as well. The first time we see him outside that idealized state is the first time Jean Louise sees him there as well. We have to look past the ideal to see that he is not a perfect man, but he is a moral one. He’s not a racist, but he’s pragmatic.

See, as Atticus explains, it’s like this: The Supreme Court decision that would allow blacks to vote is a federal ruling. So to begin with, people, including Jean Louise, are angry about the rights of the states to decide for themselves being taken away. It’s one of the same arguments we see today regarding the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. What angers Jean Louise most, however, is how Maycomb seems dead-set against integration and allowing blacks to vote. She’s angry that they aren’t just seen as people and allowed to have the same rights as everyone else. But that’s where we hit a snag. Because obviously that would be fair and just. But pragmatically, it causes a problem. Because, especially in Maycomb, a vast majority of blacks were woefully uneducated. And they outnumbered the whites. Atticus points out that this would result in uneducated voters putting unsuited and uneducated people in positions of power and collapse the government. So from this rational point of view, it’s dangerous to just allow everyone to vote, because they don’t have the education to make an informed decision. It’s the same reason we don’t allow people below the age of 18 to vote. Is it fair to argue that blacks shouldn’t vote because they’re uneducated? No. But is it a pragmatic argument? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean Atticus is racist. I never saw him as racist. Rather, I thought he was in a sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. If he argues for allowing everyone to vote, he argues in accordance with his moral beliefs, but against the good of the town. If he argues against it, he’s violating his morality, but doing what’s best for the town as a whole.

By the end of the book, Jean Louise has come to understand that morality is complicated and that many things are not as they seem. She understands that she has idealized her father to the point where seeing his flaws made him seem like a fraud and a liar. She understands that even if she doesn’t agree with her father, he’s not a bad person. And most importantly, she’s come to find her own voice, her own beliefs, and grown into herself, rather than following her father’s footsteps to the letter. If Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, Watchman is a story about a loss of innocence and a rebirth into a stronger, more confident, and more self-aware person.

The last thing I’d like to touch on is the mention in Watchman of the Tom Robinson case featured in detail in Mockingbird. Now, as you may remember, his case in Mockingbird centered on allegations that he raped 19 year old Mayella Ewell. As it turns out, he didn’t and she tried to seduce him, and her father beat her as punishment. Then they blame it on rape and accuse Robinson. Atticus makes a strong case to prove this, but Robinson is convicted and is shot to death when he tries to escape. The remainder of the events in the book hinge around what happens during the trial. Now, the big discrepancy that is the only thing keeping Watchman from being a perfect sequel:

In Watchman, the case is relayed quite differently. The unnamed Mayella Ewell is stated to be 14, and the case ends with Atticus proving that it was not rape but consensual sex. Robinson is not convicted. Given the import of the case in Mockingbird and the way it ended, you can see why this is a problematic detail.

It’s the only thing I don’t understand. I’m sure that Watchman was not just published straight from the safety deposit box it was found in. There must have been some minor editing to clean things up. So why couldn’t they have fixed the details of the case to match Mockingbird? It wouldn’t have changed anything about the book whatsoever, and it would make it fit perfectly with its precursor. This major continuity error is the only flaw I found with the book, but it is a big one.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: Go Set a Watchman is, in my view, an excellent sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and a fantastic book all around. You can definitely feel Lee’s voice in the prose, and the book is compelling — I finished it in about a day. I honestly can’t understand the people angry about it, because I went into the book looking for the issues they had with racism and the like, and found none of it. Not once I finished reading the book. I have to wonder if these people stopped reading before they got to the explanation. At any rate, this definitely goes on the list of my favorite books, and is certainly one that I highly recommend.


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