Is Jean’s empathy self serving?

This is the question I was burdened with after reading Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Go Set a Watchman was initially written before, yet published after the Pulitzer Prize-Winning To Kill a Mockingbird. It is for this reason that many people viewed it as the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus is portrayed as a man of integrity, as a white man living in the South, he does the noble thing of defending a black man. In contrast, in Go Set Watchman Atticus is portrayed as a racist accomplished man . A man who believes that the black community is still in their “childhood” (Lee, 246). It is these views Atticus holds that invoke a variety of emotions in his daughter, Jean Louise Finch. Many readers can relate to Jean’s frustration because to them the only Atticus they know is the noble Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, which seems to be the same Atticus Jean remembers from her childhood. In Go Set a Watchman Harper Lee allows the reader to experience the racist culture in Maycomb with Jean. Initially upon reading Go Set a Watchman I strongly believed that Jean was empathetic to the black minority group but it was upon deeper analysis that I realized her anger could be manifesting because she feels betrayed and mislead by her father more than the fact that she believes in equality. I am going to look at her reaction to the racist behavior in her family as well as the direct interaction between her and the black community to examine her empathy. Ultimately, consider whether or not her emotions are driven by accurate empathy or could be deemed egocentric.

Firstly, Jean Louise expresses her “disgust” and confusion after the realization of the racist nature of her family and the Maycomb community. The feeling of disgust is presented when she stumbles upon and reads a pamphlet in her father’s house, “The Black Plague”. This pamphlet speaks about the black community’s inferiority. As the reader, I was immediately made aware of her opinion on the content in the pamphlet. It is said that, “when she was finished, she took the pamphlet by one of the corners, held it like she would a dead rat by the tail” (Lee, 102). Through the association of ideas, it is clear that the content of the pamphlet disgusted Jean. We tend to associate rats with filth and as a result, they evoke the feeling of disgust. Shortly after reading the pamphlet she is informed by her Aunt, Alexandra, that her father received the pamphlet from the Citizen’s Council where he is part of the board of directors (Lee,103). The Citizens Council was a group formed to oppose racial integration. This continues to fuel her feeling of disgust and disappointment. In disbelief, she decides to go to the meeting to see this for herself. Harper Lee uses irony to comment on the changes of Jean’s father. It is ironic that she watches the Citizen Council meeting in the balcony, the same position she witnessed her father defend a black man. The position where she was lead to believe that her father was an upright and moral man is the same place where she questions his moral standing. The use of irony confirms her confusion to the reader. How could her father have completely changed his beliefs? Not only did she experience internal discomfort she also experienced physical discomfort after this ordeal. Lee states, “every nerve in her body shrieked, then died. She was numb” in addition to this “her throat tightened” (111).

It was in the conversation between Jean and her father that it was made clear to me that Jean may be feeling more than just empathy for the black community, I started considering the fact that she was experiencing anger. Anger, not at the treatment of the black community but anger that she was brought up to believe that they deserved a chance by people who did not hold that view. Atticus asks Jean in their conversation about the black community, “do you want them in our world?” (Lee, 246). There are black people living in Maycomb but this question makes it clear that though they are physically present they do not coexist in the same “world”. According to Atticus, they do not deserve the same opportunities he has, they should not be exposed to the same resources and power he has. Atticus’s beliefs anger Jean mainly because her principles are based on Atticus’s teachings and now she does not seem to know what she believes and why she believes it. She tells him, “when you talked of justice you forgot to say that justice is something that has nothing to do with people” (Lee, 247). In the same conversation, she tells him to “use your blind, immoral, misguided, nigger-lovin’ daughter as an example. Go in front of me with a bell and say, ‘Unclean!’. Point me out as your mistake.” (Lee, 248).

Furthermore, the interaction Jean has with Calpurina’s family clearly indicate how ignorant Jean is to her own privileges and the way she conducts herself and reacts to Calpurnia border on insensitive, making the reader further question her empathy. After Jean offers her father’s services as well as whatever help she can give Calpurnia, Calpurnia does not respond, and Jean says to her, “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are you doing to me? What’s the matter? .. What are you doing to me?” (160). To which Calpurnia says, “what are you doing to us?” (160). The constant reference to oneself is a sign that she is insensitive to the situation, bearing in mind that Calpurnia’s family member could be going to jail. Instead, she finds in more important for Calpurnia to accept her help as opposed to being there for her and listening which is what we tend to define empathy as. In addition to this Harper Lee describes her thoughts after leaving Calpurina’s house. It is stated that, “Why is it that everything I have ever loved on this earth has gone away from me in two days time?.. She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks” (161).

All these emotions Jean experiences resulted in a “wave of invective”, as Harper Lee describes it () . It is clear that Jean empathizes with the black community and desires a world where equal opportunities are given to all. However, there is another consideration to be made when looking into her empathy. It seems as though she is infuriated by the fact that her father made her believe that he was something that he is not. The betrayal she feels is not on behalf of the black community but it is for herself. She feels her father has done her a disservice by not teaching her his own views. Maybe Jean is too privileged to be able to understand what the black community is going through sufficiently enough to invoke accurate empathy from her. This is evident because more than she is empathetic to the black community she is upset with her family for essentially ‘misleading’ her. This then begs the question of whether or not this kind of moral standing (empathy) is still viable or does it become less effective because it becomes less about the people Jean believes deserve a chance and more about Jean and how she feels. But does that mean that Jean’s empathy is completely inaccurate? How much empathy is enough empathy?

Work Cited

Lee, Harper. Go Set A Watchman. Harper Collins, 2015. Print.

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