Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchmen is the sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird and involves a now adult Scout (who goes by Jean Louise) and an aging Atticus Finch now taken with arthritis. Jem has died before the events within the book transpire. Jean Louise has returned from New York for a vacation in Maycomb county. Henry Clinton, an old friend, is after her hand in marriage. Jean Louise returns to Maycomb and in less than 48 hours, has her whole life turned upside down.
The reason for this transformation is the very reason that the book’s release was controversial to some. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a man of deep principle that stands up for and defends a young black man accused of rape. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus is still a lawyer and former legislator, but his morals come into question when Jean Louise finds Atticus and her friend Henry attending a Citizen’s Council Meeting and disparaging black people. Jean Louise is thunderstruck by this revelation and the wrinkle in her perception of Atticus Finch.
But while many lamented this change in Atticus Finch, I celebrated it. Jean Louise’s loss of innocence, her discovering that Atticus wasn’t the hero she thought he was, happened to each and every reader that had upheld Atticus as a paragon to follow. Our confusion, pain and discomfort was mirrored by Jean Louise. Jean Louise’s uncle, Dr. Finch, made this clear when he set offered the advice that people should never see their gods become human. To many a reader, Atticus was a literary god, a character that did and always would do what was right. When we watched him at the Citizen’s Council, we saw the pillar in our own mind’s eye splinter and come apart to reveal a nastiness we could not have guessed and wouldn’t not have imagined.
This to me is a more realistic Atticus, a man more bound by the cultural and political times than the Atticus of yore. This is a man that is more complicated and more real. He is a man that was still decent to the black community in his town and wasn’t the most ardent of racists in the town, but he was colored by the prejudices of his time. He defended a young black man because there was a flaw int he prosecution, not out of some sort of anti-racist benevolence.This Atticus is the Atticus we would have most likely gotten the whole time had To Kill A Mockingbird not been written from the perspective of a young and innocent Scout.
For me, the biggest red flag was not the loss of Atticus as a symbol of benevolence, justice and fairness. No, my big problem with the novel was the rosy tint placed on Jean Louise’s colorblindness. This colorblindness is seen as a beneficial and forward-thinking change. Scout was raised to not see color and as a consequence cannot imagine her father’s intolerance. To be clear it is not that I think prejudice and discrimination are good, but that I think the notion of colorblindness has a profound erasing effect on people of color. The unique aspects of people: their cultures, traditions, sayings and history, all get presupposed and placed into a neat categorical box that is filtered through the majoritarian view. In other words, they don’t value them because of who they are, but in terms of how they can relate to them.
While in this novel colorblindness seems to be an improvement over past attitudes, in reality this is the same logic employed by the Roberts’ Court over and over again in gutting Civil Rights reforms. Chief Justice Roberts once said that “the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” which is all very nice until you think about it. Racism isn’t something that exists purely as a mind set that is opposed to a certain group; it is also a system of actions that are mapped out in a system or institution that have a disparate impact on certain populations. At times this impact is intended, but many times it is not. But there are systemic factors that inhibit a group of people that are not present in for other groups. While Jean Louise can sleep soundly at night because of her colorblindness, we cannot and should not. We should remain cognizant of the fact that people are different and unique, but that these are traits to be honored, respected and valued and not stigmatized and repressed
Go Set A Watchman is really interesting book once you get to the heart of it. While at the beginning the books is somewhat slow and monotonous, when Jean Louise is losing her religion with Atticus and Dr. Finch must come in and save her sanity, the book is truly heartfelt, sincere and probes the issues of adulthood and coming to terms with oneself and others in a truly remarkable fashion.Dr. Finch is perhaps the most pivotal of characters in this novel and his words to Jean Louise transcend the pages of the book and stand as a reminder to all of us to not let humans become our gods.