Lessening the Societal Impact of a Powerful Novel

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Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is an influential novel all on its own, but examining the weight of its impact alongside her formerly published novel To Kill a Mockingbird sheds a whole new light on what this publication did to society. There has been a great deal of chatter over Go Set a Watchman since its publication in 2015; some have called it nothing more than a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and others have said that it should not have been published at all. Regardless, I think we can all agree that there were some major changes in the depictions of characters from To Kill a Mockingbird to Go Set a Watchman, especially in Jean Louise Finch (Scout) and Atticus Finch.

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise is at the ripe age of 26, contrary to her being a child in To Kill a Mockingbird. Being an adult, full of independent views and opinions, makes a huge difference in the reception of the content in the novel. Having a child narrator in To Kill a Mockingbird gives the reader a sense of innocence and even protection from some biases. For example, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird asks her older brother Jem “Well how do you know we ain’t Negroes?” (Lee 78). On the contrary, Scout is all grown up in Go Set a Watchman and not only is the innocence lost, but she has developed a whole independent life in New York City, separate from Maycomb County, Alabama where both novels are set. She has grown up to be more progressive than both the average citizen of Maycomb County and her own father. Showcasing this is her sarcastic response to the “Black Plague” informational pamphlet she found amongst her father’s other literature: “I especially liked the part where the Negroes, bless their hearts, couldn’t help being inferior to the white race because their skulls are thicker and their brain-pans shallower—whatever that means—so we must all be very kind to them and not let them do anything to hurt themselves and keep them in their places.” (Lee 8.26). She obviously has her own opinions on race and this was the first instance where the realization of a huge differing in opinions between Scout and her father Atticus happened, by both Scout and the readers who “knew” Atticus Finch from reading To Kill a Mockingbird prior to Go Set a Watchman.

To Kill a Mockingbird played an important role in society. It portrayed a specific, but not uncommon occurrence of racial prejudice and gave readers an inspirational protagonist, Atticus Finch, who stood up against this and paved the way for others to do the same. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel highlighted the issues with racism and social injustice and proved worthy of entering, and staying a part of many United States public schools’ curriculums. You can view a recent ABC news report on the topic here (Shapiro). However, now Atticus our hero complies with the racial prejudices that exists 20 years down the road in Go Set a Watchman instead of standing up against them and Scout, who obviously takes issue with this is left confused and also takes no significant steps towards eliminating this racial prejudice. The novel has believed criticism for this, with one reviewer saying “Atticus fraternizes with segregationists and maintains that blacks and whites in Maycomb, Alabama are not ready for desegregation” (Galehouse). Galehouse, in her review of Go Set a Watchmen includes racist quotes from Atticus such as “Jean Louise, have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?…”You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that?” (Galehouse). Atticus, near the end of the novel is even caught saying “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” (Lee 17.102). The same man, promoting empathy and equality in To Kill a Mockingbird, becomes nothing more than a hypocrite as we get to know him better. Go Set a Watchman provides no exceptional lessons in morality and it even takes away from those learned in To Kill a Mockingbird by turning our beloved protagonist into an intolerant racist.

Works Cited

Franklin, Mary Alice. “Go Set a Watchman: A Draft, Not a Novel.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 July 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

Galehouse, Maggie. “Racist Rants from Atticus in ‘Go Set a Watchman'” Houston Chronicle. Hearst Newspapers, LLC, 15 July 2015. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

Giraldi, William. “Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Should Not Have Been Published.” New Republic. New Republic, 16 July 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.

Shapiro, Emily. “Harper Lee: The Impact of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'” ABC News. ABC News Network, 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

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