Monday 20 July 2015

The Atticus Problem: Responding to Go Set a Watchman

There has been a considerable amount of controversy in the bookish world, ever since it was announced that a sequel to Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, had been found, and was to be published. Miss Lee is famous for having published just one masterpiece, and nothing since. There were concerns that the publishers may be exploiting a lady who is very elderly, frail, and reclusive, and no great assurance that she willingly approved the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Then, at the weekend, came the first newspaper reviews with their bombshell: Read this, and it could affect the way you see To Kill a Mockingbird and its most beloved characters. I didn't want to know this. I hate spoilers, but worse, I hate being told before I read or watch something new, what I ought to have a problem with. Because once I've read these (perfectly valid) criticisms, they stay in my mind, and I find myself picking holes that I might not have done otherwise. So I'll give you the chance to click away now, if you've managed to avoid the publicity so far and want to read Go Set a Watchman unspoiled, or keep To Kill A Mockingbird as a stand alone classic without a sequel.

The Garment-Rending Approach

The big bombshell of Go Set a Watchman is the character of one of American literature's greatest heroes of all time. Atticus Finch, for over half a century a champion for right and justice and equality, an extraordinary figure in 1930s Alabama, is toppled from his pedestal in the 1950s, when he reveals his less savoury views.

It's difficult to reconcile Atticus Finch with racism, and all the more so as in every other way, he remains 100% Atticus, polite, respectably subversive, a leading member of the community. Is everything we ever believed a lie? one asks. As To Kill A Mockingbird was actually written after Go Set a Watchman, it's hard to picture Miss Lee presenting us with a perfect hero, while sitting on the knowledge of his alter ego for fifty five years or more. But Go Set a Watchman is an unusual sequel, because it was written earlier, because of the gap between it and its predecessor, and because of To Kill a Mockingbird's magnitude. Does this invalidate the last fifty five years of literature? Can we ever read the triumphs and tragedies and honest goodness in To Kill a Mockingbird without remembering this other side to Atticus? How might one approach teaching Mockingbird in schools now? I'd scoff at the idea that one work of art might be "ruined forever" by another, but I wonder how long it'll be before I reread Mockingbird without holding Watchman in my mind throughout Atticus's scenes.*

The Dual Perspective Approach

Although, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is told in the third person, the focus character and the one to whom the reader most relates is Scout Finch, now known by her full name, Jean Louise. Jean Louise is twenty six years old, and naturally she has a different view of the world around her than she did as a little girl. It stands to reason that she would have a more critical, less blindly accepting attitude towards her father. A painful part of growing up is to discover the flaws in our heroes, that they are only human too. Does one flaw cancel out everything good about them? Is it possible for Atticus Finch to fight with all his heart for justice and do the right thing in the face of opposition, and still hold in his heart the same prejudice that influenced everyone else? I'd argue that nothing in Go Set a Watchman changes Atticus's behaviour or even his motivation in To Kill a Mockingbird. His character is another matter.

When you look up to people, whether they be celebrities, acquaintances, close relations, or ink and paper, they have the power to let you down. Go Set a Watchman is painful reading in places, for the very reason that the reader is going through the exact same thing that Scout (I can't call her Jean Louise) does, in seeing Atticus toppled from his pedestal. Literature takes us inside our characters' minds, makes us feel what they feel, and on a meta level, the fifty years of hailing Atticus Finch as a hero has made us all the more sympathetic, her dismay and ours all the more powerful. It is Atticus himself, fallen, and yet still recognisable, whose lesson to Scout is that she stand up for what she believes to be right and true - even against him.

The First Draft Approach

The important thing to remember is that To Kill a Mockingbird evolved from Go Set a Watchman. The publishers rejected the original manuscript, but liked the memories of Scout as a young girl so much that Harper Lee wrote a new novel entirely from that perspective. And the thing is, writing evolves. Stories evolve. Characters evolve. Regardless of author's intent, the evidence we've had to work with has been in the bookshops for over half a century; is that not long enough for it to be "real"? It's a story that lives not only printed on paper and on film, but in the hearts and minds of so many people. At some point (but at what point?) I think a story comes alive, becomes more than just the words of the author. To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly such a story. It's different from, say, Tolkien's Histories of Middle-Earth, which charter the evolution of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Go Set A Watchman is almost entirely a different story, with some overlap and some contradiction, but it formed a starting point, the end result of which was To Kill a Mockingbird. Anna James wrote her review from this perspective on the Pool website, describing the new novel as "the origin story of an iconic book" and the Atticus Finch portrayed within as "a work in progress."

The Discontinuity Approach

Related to the above, where do we place Go Set a Watchman in the canon of Harper Lee? To Kill a Mockingbird is not simply a modern classic, but a classic, full stop. The publication of a sequel to a classic in my lifetime, so long after the first installment, is unheard of. Does Go Set a Watchman automatically rank beside its sister novel, or does it have to earn its own place in the annals of literature on its own merits, over time?

Add into the equation the moral doubts about whether Miss Lee really wanted the book published; after all, she refused to publish anything for over half a century, and some have noted that the "discovery" of Go Set A Watchman shortly after the death of her sister, who was also her lawyer, is too suspicious to be a coincidence. We'll probably never know her wishes, but if we read it, we should do so in the knowledge that it might not be the story she wanted us to read in the end.

On the other hand, like it or not, Go Set a Watchman has been released into the wild now. It exists, and people are reading it, and talking about it. Does that fact alone make it canon? It is more than a first draft, and follows on quite well as a sequel to the casual reader. But the text of Watchman contradicts the biggest plot events of Mockingbird: the court case Jean Louise remembers here had a different outcome, different details, but was clearly the inspiration for the Tom Robinson trial. One could view this as evidence that Watchman must be viewed as a separate story from Mockingbird, that the two books don't fit together in the same fictional universe.

But I feel uncomfortable denying Go Set a Watchman outright. "I can't believe in Atticus as a racist, therefore this can't be the real Atticus." I don't want to simply shut my eyes to unsavoury elements to a story just because they make me uncomfortable. It puts in mind the things I've been reading about the American school curriculum omitting to teach significant chunks of race-related history, as if ignoring them would make them go away. Obviously, Atticus Finch is a fictional character, but his dilemmas, opinions, strengths and flaws reflect the real world. Is it wrong of us to want to preserve a clean, good image of a hero at the expense of those who suffered as a result of the hurtful attitudes we'd rather not admit he expressed?

Or am I taking this all far too seriously? After all, "it's just a story."

Who gets to decide whether this is an official sequel, or a stage in the evolution of a masterpiece? I guess it's up to the individual reader, and I don't have an easy answer to any of the questions raised. One thing is certain, though: this is one of the biggest events in the history of publishing, and people will be discussing Go Set a Watchman for a long time to come.

*I watched the film after writing this post. I still have a huge amount of love for Mockingbird's Atticus Finch. Go Set A Watchman does not seem to have changed this. Perhaps it is like the rebooted Star Trek universe, canon and not canon, the same and not the same AT THE SAME TIME. Star Trek and To Kill A Mockingbird: not a comparison you come across every day, I suspect.

1 comment:

  1. "...the same and not the same AT THE SAME TIME." Once again, you nailed it, YOU NAILED IT ALL, I love you, I'm going to go make lunch now. :)


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