Like many avid readers, I consider To Kill a Mockingbird to be one of the greatest books ever written. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in 8th grade, where Atticus Finch taught his children, and myself, the importance of upholding justice and protecting the innocent even in the hardest of times. Atticus Finch is a man of upstanding moral character, and he is one of the biggest reasons why To Kill a Mockingbird is regarded as a time-honored classic in American literature.
When news rolled around in 2015 about a To Kill a Mockingbird “sequel” — Go Set a Watchman, I was wary. I heard many mixed reviews about it, including statements that Atticus Finch was racist and I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or not.
Unfortunately, my hopes of Atticus’ supposed racism as a joke was wrong. This change of Atticus’ character between the two books was the primary reason for the mixed reviews of Go Set a Watchman. Atticus’ moral integrity was the reason why lawyers became lawyers and why students across our country understand the importance of tolerance (Carter).
Despite the drastic character change people see in Atticus between Lee’s two books, I found that Atticus’ greatest constant was his devotion to the law. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus tries to promote justice, working to free an innocent African-American man from a false conviction by a white woman in spite of Maycomb’s inevitable condemnation of Tom Robinson on account of his race. But he also feels the need to take legal action against Boo Radley for assaulting Bob Ewell when Boo was defending Jem, until Heck Tate tells him to allow poetic justice to prevail without the law (Mockingbird 276-280). On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman has Atticus successfully defend Tom Robinson against a white girl despite his own racist views against African-Americans. In spite of his own views or the inevitable outcome, Lee preserves Atticus’ ability to carry out the law without bias. Like Uncle Jack says in Go Set a Watchman, “he’ll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives” (Watchman 268). I find this to be both a virtue and fault in Atticus’ character. Because Atticus follows the law sometimes to a flaw, it allows him to do the right thing without looking at race, but at the same time, he uses his concern for state’s rights to justify his racism against African-Americans. It is this trait Lee keeps constant that I believe allowed her to change Atticus so much while retaining his identity and reminded me of how the law can be used to justify both ends of an argument.
But the most alarming part of Atticus’ change was how subtly it was conveyed. It wasn’t as if Atticus’ character was backwards, it was that he was as erudite, patient, and wise as he had been in To Kill a Mockingbird. He still loved his daughter, read books before bed, and maintained an easy-going disposition — but now he was racist. And it was this one change in character that stopped all empathy for Atticus compared to the warmth he received in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, all Harper Lee had to do with Atticus was change one characteristic, his drive for justice and fairness for all people, regardless of race, to make us look at him in an entirely new way. In my opinion, this made Atticus’ change in character so difficult to comprehend because it easily turned a well-loved character into a character whose morals we could not agree with. From this, there was a lack of empathy and understanding for Atticus, not over physical and moral wrongdoing, but a conflict in ideology. Having a lapse in empathy over a conflict in ideology is not uncommon, but it is also unwarranted and destroys understanding between people. Jean Louise’s own thoughts and accusations against her father for lying to her mirrors that of the readers. She accuses him of lying because she had never seen the racist side of Atticus until she saw him at the Maycomb Citizen’s Council meeting. At this, Jean Louise shuts down her empathy for Atticus in light of this fundamental disagreement. It was unfathomable that Atticus could have ever been characterized as racist until reading Go Set a Watchman. Jean Louise did not learn her father was racist until she was a grown woman. When her Uncle Jack tries to talk her through her anger, he says, “‘… now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s… you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings… You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would be your answers” (Watchman 267). Just as Jean Louise expected Atticus to be her perfect moral guide, so did we. When this was not the case, Jean Louise and readers could not understand why. We all stopped our empathy for Atticus because we disagreed with him, not because committed an actual crime, though it may have felt like it. There were no warning signs or indications for Jean Louise to figure out that her father was racist. Thus, her idolization of Atticus as a man who looked at people without regard to race had no reason to be questioned. As this happened, Atticus let Jean Louise to go into a rage if it meant finally allowing her to see him as he was, to finally separate her perception of her father as a god from her father as a human (Watchman 266). And perhaps this is what let Jean Louise truly understand her father for who he was and finally begin to empathize with him again. This is an experience readers share with Jean Louise as we must cope with the fact that Atticus is not perfect, his earlier characterization does not reflect him in a positive light the way we had expected. But that does not mean we should not or cannot empathize with Atticus Finch.
In the end, I’ve reconciled the differences between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman and have learned to appreciate their respective benefits. While To Kill a Mockingbird has always been more informative of the human spirit, justice, and compassion, Go Set a Watchman has a tone of maturity that To Kill a Mockingbird is somewhat incapable of, given Jean Louise’s age at the time. My experience was that To Kill a Mockingbird was a book that taught me important life lessons but Go Set a Watchman related the universal experience of returning home and realizing that much has changed. Go Set a Watchman is the equivalent of realizing that something you have looked up to is not perfect, but you can still connect and empathize with it somehow. No matter how different it may be. It captures that final growing pain one must experience in which they must separate their mind from others and realize no one may truly ever understand them. But despite this crushing reality, Go Set a Watchman tells readers that this is not a bad thing. Just as Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise that her empathy now along with her different views will help change Maycomb in time, the unique perspective of any individual can bring change over time. To Kill a Mockingbird is irreplaceable to me; but I was able to appreciate Go Set a Watchman nevertheless.
Carter, Stephen. “Harper Lee Created the Greatest American Hero.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Lee, Harper. Go Set A Watchman. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.
Lee, Harper. “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (n.d.): 276-80. Gardenhomeslutheran.org. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.