Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Thoughts on "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee

So, Atticus Finch is a racist.

And people are mock-sympathising with those who named their children, or dog in Jake Gyllenhaal’s case, after this character. You can’t blame them though: he was an honest, hardworking and just man in To Kill a Mockingbird. He represented the ideal parent, lawyer and citizen.

Yet now it turns out that author Harper Lee originally wrote a more complex novel. One where racism is more pernicious, that examines the fractured relationship between a father and daughter. This novel is what To Kill a Mockingbird was intended to be. And whilst nobody likes to be reminded that these characters are subject to an authors’ will, this change of direction signals a far more problematic notion than a racist character. It seems to me that Go Set a Watchman wanted to address racism from a more complex position. But when Harper Lee brought this manuscript to her publishers she was told to re-write it and to make it into a story of a white man holding a town to rights. He was the only person that the unruly mob would be swayed by; he was brave to stand up to a system that he saw was intrinsically flawed. So what was wrong with the first idea?

Did we love the idea more than the man?

From the vantage point of seeing the significance that has imbued this text since its initial publication, it seems that we needed to believe in the idea of a man who could see the right from the wrong. That Atticus Finch could grow up, live, and raise his children in a town that was fundamentally and systematically racist and yet still believe (and act on those beliefs, more importantly) that supremacy of any kind was wrong. This isn’t just that we were fond of a character: we believed in him and everything that we felt he represented.

A lesson to be learned

Did Atticus Finch exist? No.

He is a fictional character whose opinions, views and actions are entirely dependent on Harper Lee (and what her publisher deems appropriate).  And it isn't a "blunder" nor something that can be glossed over.

No, nobody wants their favourite character to be a racist. 

But I wonder if any progress can be made if we’re unwilling to entertain the notion that a favoured fictional character could be racist. Will we be willing to consider our own views? Or those of our family or friends?

Do we really need a white saviour?  I have a sneaking suspicion that this character is cherished by predominantly white people.   But when it comes down to it, if you’re looking for an account of racism in America that will withstand the test of time, should you be looking at white authors?



Rachael Adams said...

This is such a good post. I almost didn't believe it when I read he ended up racist, and I have to say that I WAS disappointed and almost didn't want to read it, so that Atticus could remain one of my favourite characters. However, I've read a few accounts from black people in America that have stated that the people who were standing up against racism in the Martin Luther King period, were often the people black people were fighting against decades later - so it seems like a true reflection.

I haven't read Go Set a Watchman yet, but I'm really excited to give it a go and I hope I love it as much as To Kill a Mockingbird.

Francesca said...

I have to admit to being quite confused and disappointed when I heard Atticus Finch's character as being described as rascist. Still want to read the book though. I think in general people have a hard time dealing with complex characters in books, movies whatever. We like things to be good or bad and life and most humans aren't like that! I agree with your sentiments about a white hero though, all the books I've read about the civiil rights movement and segregation have been written by white people, and usually have a white hero when in reality the biggest progresses were made by blacks, yet these stories don't seem to make it to the page?


Anonymous said...

This is such thoughtful post, you have some very interesting points

MissQ said...

You make some really good points here. It hadn't really crossed my mind to consider why Harper Lee originally intended to write a much more confrontational novel but you're right that the racism in Watchman is much more pernicious. It's a more uncomfortable read than Mockingbird.

D. R. Chazan said...

Great piece. I'm going to read this book, I don't care if he ended up a racist. It almost makes sense that he did. Just because he defended an innocent black man, doesn't mean he has to like black people.

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