I recently finished this reread of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman for the first time. After reading both texts consecutively, I understand the comments about the latter novel being something of a departure from the original story. However, I thought that the two fit together naturally, and paired wonderfully as complements. In fact, I loved Go Set a Watchman even more than I do To Kill a Mockingbird, and reading it made me appreciate Harper Lee’s skills as an author more than I did before.
WARNING: spoilers below for Go Set a Watchman!
Perhaps because I can personally relate to Scout’s plight in Go Set a Watchman, or perhaps simply because I knew to expect it, I was not at all surprised by the opinions that Atticus expresses in this second novel. I do not think that they change the significance of his character’s actions in To Kill a Mockingbird. Certainly, Atticus is taken off of a pedestal for the reader–just like he is for Scout–but I do not think that Lee contradicts herself at all. Instead of playing around again in Maycomb, she enters the real world, along with Scout, and the reader. The first novel had terrible things occur–but seen from Scout’s eyes, everything ended up with a rosy veneer. In this novel, Scout instead faces the true difficulties and ugly realities of a society so plagued by its nasty history.
Calpurnia might have loved Scout and Jem, and I believe she did, but there were lots of issues to address with those relationships once an adult narrator was available. The scene in her bedroom was heartbreaking for Scout, but it was critical for Lee to include. With Atticus, I see it the same; it isn’t easy to read, but he cannot be perfect. His devotion to the law led him to defend Tom Robinson and crusade for the cause of equal treatment. But still, his devotion to the law led him to stand against potential violators, even those protesting for equal rights and better treatment.
To be honest, Atticus, despite becoming much more complicated and harder to like, remains my favorite character. I still want to believe that he believes in equality under the law–my interpretation of his remarks, which could be wrong, were that he is angry and even scared concerning the “lawlessness” of the Civil Rights Movement happening at the time, and the pressure on the South to change its ways immediately. I would argue that Atticus would not despise a world where blacks and whites live in true equality; simply that he would want such a world to come about naturally, slowly, and with regards to the laws and traditions of the South. Obviously, this is an empty and gross placation; if anyone had waited for that to happen, we would probably still be living like they do in the novels right here in South Carolina (not that we either have reached our peak of racial equality, we definitely have not). So I am fully on Scout’s side when she argues with him and calls out his beliefs, but I can see that for a man of his age in his time, this is nearly the best that Lee can do in giving the readers an accurate, “unproblematic” lead male adult character. He doesn’t hate black people, but he doesn’t want them to be judges. Of course. Atticus is brought down to Earth, for his daughter and the reader; now I can recognize him as human, someone I’ve seen before, and so can Scout.