Go Set a Watchman – Controversy, Travesty or Mirror of Our Soul?

GSaWAt the time of writing, Go Set a Watchman had 1,466 reviews on Amazon. 45% 5 star, 22% 4 star, 13% 3 star, 9% 2 star, and 11% 1 star.

The most helpful negative review (1 star) chastises Harper Lee’s writing, dialog and character development while pointing out discrepancies between the two books and unresolved plot threads.

The most helpful positive review (4 stars) echoes my own sentiments on the book.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books of all time. Part of that is the author’s voice and writing, but most of it revolves around the characters. It’s hard not to be amused with Scout’s antics–especially for us tomboys–and who doesn’t love Atticus Finch for what he represents? A man who is willing to battle for the underdog and win.

Most of the controversy surrounding the book, and the primary reason why people don’t like it, is because we find out more about Atticus’s character. Just like Jean Louise (she’s mostly lost her nickname now that she’s 26), we are horrified when we think Atticus might be racist. Like Jean Louise, we have worshipped his character for years and years. We grew up thinking he was a hero. And he was a hero.

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And here’s where the book really works, especially from a Christian standpoint. No person is perfect. We, like Jean Louise, have set Atticus Finch up as an idol. That is to say, we have in our heads who we think he is, so that when we find out more about him, it can only lead to disappointment.

People criticize Harper Lee for not being consistent to Atticus’s character. Are you kidding me? She created his character! She knows more about Atticus than any of us. And she knew that what Atticus loved more than anything else was the law and justice. It was his love for the law that led him to help Tom Robinson even though he was a black man, a noble thing for him to do at the time. Had he loved the law and justice less, he wouldn’t have done it.

My father was born in 1919. He died when I was little, but his views on race were based on his upbringing. He was no Atticus Finch. During the date and time Go Set a Watchman was written, race was a huge issue. It is a testament to Atticus’s legacy that Jean Louise was more color blind that he was. I think that’s we pass onto our children – for the next generation to be more color blind than ours.

Houston is the most culturally diverse city in the US (even more than NY, if you can believe it). Our schools reflect this – they are truly a melting pot of civilization. I love that when my oldest daughter was in first grade, she mentioned a boy in her class had celebrated Chinese New Year. When we asked her if he was Chinese, her answer was, “I don’t know. I’ve never heard him speak Spanish!”

Or when my children were sitting in the back of our car one day and one said to the other, “Hey, we’re black girls!” Swallowing, I asked them what they meant. The answer? “We’re both wearing black shirts and black pants.” Children are born colorblind and learn to be racist.

For me, the best parts of Go Set A Watchman was its testament to history. The things Harper Lee describes are places I’ve never been, and things I’d never seen. It’s a completely different culture and time for today, this little capsule of history that she’s created. Much better than any historical novelist could do trying to live today and go back and recreated what happened back then. She captures the pulse of small town American in a racially antagonistic time. And religion is part of that culture, integrated into the book as a whole.

While I have no way of knowing if she intended it to be, the Christian message is also there. Harper Lee reminds us through Scout that there was only one perfect man who lived on Earth, and His name wasn’t Atticus Finch. When our loved ones disappoint us, we have the choice to accept them for their fallibilities and move on. So for the people who can’t or won’t reconcile Atticus’s character, I wonder what that means when you encounter fallibilities in real life people? Something to consider…

NOW YOU: HAVE YOU READ GO SET A WATCHMAN? WHAT DID YOU THINK? OR ARE YOU SWEARING IT OFF? IF SO, HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL TO KNOW THAT THERE WAS MORE TO ATTICUS’S CHARACTER THAN MEETS THE EYE?

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8 thoughts on “Go Set a Watchman – Controversy, Travesty or Mirror of Our Soul?

  1. This book is on my To-Read list. I’ve heard about the controversy, and for once controversy seems to be helpful instead of plain divisive.

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  2. I’ve never read the first one, though I have seen the movie. I think it’s funny that people find Atticus surprising. Clearly no one thinks about the time period, when it was written, etc. And I agree with you 100%. (Now I’ve got Carefully Taught from South Pacific in my head, thank you. ;P)

    I had an elderly relative tell me once that, even though they knew it was okay, they couldn’t help but feel weird when they saw mixed-race couples – a byproduct of their upbringing. And I remember in my urban ministry practicum, the class had to take an online racism quiz and it scored pretty much everyone at least some degree racist. And there was this loud, angry discussion in class with everyone hating the quiz and claiming it was inaccurate because no one wanted to be racist to any degree. Except the black, Bahamian classmate 10 years older than the rest of us, who shrugged her shoulders and said she’d already known she had a slight preference toward white people. It was an interesting discussion. (And not quite on topic for this post but…)

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    • I love South Pacific. I can’t believe you’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird. But I think Atticus and his treatment of black people is what made the book a classic. A non-racists in a racist time. The defender of right. And that’s the reason so many people are having trouble reconciling his character. Because to them, all though he did the right thing, he didn’t do it for the “right” reason.

      I will admit that when I got to the part of the book where he was sitting in a meeting with a bunch of racists, I was shocked and kept thinking, “No, that can’t be right. There has to be an explanation.” And there was an explanation which made sense, but the hero still comes away tarnished. In ways, it’s brilliant, because we are all Scout. And like Scout, we have that decision to make – can we still love Atticus Finch?

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  3. Haven’t read it. It’s true, we all have feet of clay. My grandfather was a great guy and very generous. He didn’t like black people and bohunks (people of Bohemian heritage), I never knew that until my mom mentioned it to me years after his death. Does it change my opinion of him? No, I still love and appreciate his memory. He also loved going to church and supporting the gospel. Many people may see a disconnect, not unlike what is portrayed in to Kill A Mocking Bird. It is possible to love the gospel and not be able to live it out completely. It’s why I believe that the Grace of God is not taught enough, or correctly, from the pulpits of the American church. Another reason why we should never “point fingers” at others.

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  4. I’ll admit I haven’t read it because I’ve heard so many people are getting upset about Atticus, but I get what you’re saying. No one’s perfect, and we’ve got to understand where and when Atticus was living to understand his point of view. I guess what I would want to see then is some character development. Does either Atticus or Scout change? Do they work through at least some of their flaws?

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    • The story has always been about Scout. GSaW is her coming of age story. So, yes, she works through her disappointment with her father to become her own person with her own set of values -that’s actually the point of the novel. And the novel sets us up for that (so does To Kill A Mockingbird). Scout is this great character who gets these ideas and assumes she’s right when she’s often anything but. For instance, there’s this great vignette of her as a child thinking because a boy kissed her that she’s pregnant. And she’s so completely certain that she is that she plans to do some crazy things until someone calls her on it and corrects her. Well, her ideas about Atticus are no different. She’s got it so set in her mind that she knows who he is and what makes him tick, but like all the other stories point out, what she believes is not necessarily true.

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  5. I must confess I have not read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ BUT I plan to remedy that next as I’m taking my daughter’s copy on vacation. Then I want to read ‘Go Set a Watchman’. As a writer I’m curious about both, having always heard how truly awesome TKAM is AND now the criticism and controversy surrounding GSAW have piqued my curiosity.

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