Two lessons to learn from Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’

harper lee go set a watchman

It’s an old adage that everybody loves a hero and we here at Pop Mythology are certainly far from an exception to this. In fact, the recent resurgence in the popularity of superhero-themed comic books and movies seems to suggest that for some reason we need them now more than ever.

The hero is indeed a unique and rarified concept in modern Western society. It is interesting that a quick check in a thesaurus does not yield an even remotely equivalent term: adventurers, romantics, gamblers, and wanderers are suggested as related, but I cannot imagine interchanging any of these. The definition also seems a bit nebulous, evoking courage, bravery, nobility, or the unhelpfully self-referential “someone who has performed a heroic act.”

But mostly we think we can recognize and acknowledge a hero when we see one. (Or heroine. I am not being sexist here, I would just prefer to designate the word “hero” being non-gender specific rather than use a term that sounds like an illegal drug.)  And perhaps we are not necessarily wrong in this assumption, but is the aspect of being a hero a character trait or is it a situational response?  Also, how deep of an understanding of inner motivation must we grasp before we can be certain of true heroism? If the right things were done for “wrong” reasons can the acts still be considered heroic?  Does it even matter what the motives were as long as the right thing was done?  Can we ever even fully divine another’s motives?

These are the ambiguities we face and what we must confront when our heroes disappoint us. Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has long held a special place in the hearts of literature buffs. Many of us read this wonderful book in high school and cast Atticus in the mold of the hero, fighting doggedly and bravely to uphold the rights of a poor black man wrongly accused of rape despite the hopelessness of the situation. For many, this image was reinforced by Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus in the 1962 film adaptation. Peck, one of the most beloved screen actors of all time, was a longtime activist and humanitarian, and we projected his public persona of virtue onto Atticus and vice versa. Perhaps for some readers, the perceived tainting of Atticus’s perfection bled into the memory of a beloved star whose image we wanted to remain unblemished.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the film version of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 1962. (Universal Pictures)
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the film version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ 1962. (Universal Pictures)

Now, many years later, we discover that our way of imagining and remembering Atticus has been like that of the childhood protagonist of Mockingbird, Scout, who idolized her father. But in Lee’s Go Set a Watchman we must put away childish things with Jean Louise and see a bigger picture. Here we learn that Atticus’s actions arise from a deep, abiding respect for justice and the law coupled with a drive to uphold these principles, rather than ones of civil rights and racial equality.

Like his daughter, we are profoundly stunned and disappointed to learn that Atticus’s heroism does not extend in all the directions we want it to. We feel deeply betrayed that someone of character who has done so much good can hold common racial prejudices at his core. This revelation has led to some controversy towards Harper Lee and her book in which readers have been demanding refunds for their purchase. But despite the surface claims, by those asking for refunds, that the book was not what they expected or that it was inaccurately marketed as a true sequel, it’s possible part of the real reason for the controversy stems from the kind of emotional attachment to flawless heroes that I’ve mentioned above. People’s mental images of Atticus Finch as the perfect hero are being tainted and they don’t like it. Perhaps they even feel vicariously threatened that if even Atticus can harbor hidden prejudices, what does that say about their own hidden prejudices?

But instead of reacting with fear and indignation, I think that we can accept Atticus’s complexity and contradictions if we can adjust our views about our cherished heroes. In that spirit, there are two key things we can learn from Watchman and Mockingbird, and because of the unique way these books have been given to us over such a lengthy time span, we can learn these lessons well.

1. Heroes are flawed but it doesn’t make them less worthy of love

The first is concerning flawed heroes and how to regard them. Part of Atticus’s character was always faulted with prejudice, and it is only as an adult that Jean Louise can learn to realize this complexity. But Atticus is also a good man who has done good and brave things; a hero with flaws and a human. We, like Jean Louise, eventually see that it is without significance to love an imagined perfect hero – her childhood image of her dad – for this is mere idolatry.

Only a flawed hero can really be loved, for in loving we embrace the whole character and all that it is. And this is as it should be, because while discipline and punishment can smooth faults over time, it is only love that can truly have a chance to heal them.

2. Our prejudices are deeply ingrained and not always obvious

Secondly, we can absorb a lesson on the nature of prejudices. The human brain prefers strict order when it comes to good and evil and wants to see them cleanly sorted. The burning crosses and Nazi death camps are how the mind wants to portray prejudice because these are easily spotted and avoided.

But the face of prejudice is nearly always far more banal than this and often lurks behind practicality and superficial good intentions. Atticus’s prejudice creeps from these directions and bears more than a passing resemblance to the British apartheid stance for maintaining functioning, orderly government and keeping the peace and law. Indeed it is hard to effectively debate these good intentions in situ, but from the perspective of distance, which Jean Louise gains in New York, one can see the totality and wrongness of the prejudice.

This is a hard lesson to face, because the implication is that no matter how strongly one tries to be free of prejudice against other people, it is always possible to find oneself in a forest of it and not be able to see past the trees.

I have encountered an even harsher book than Watchman, entitled The Kindly Ones. This book is a historical fiction account of how the mechanics of the Nazi genocide arose from practical needs of war. I couldn’t finish it. I preferred to accept the pure evil of the Holocaust and didn’t want to “understand” the origins. I know now that it is better to study prejudice, to better be on the lookout for it and, like Jean Louise, face it knowledgeably rather than to risk getting lost among it.

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me,

Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

                                                                             —Isaiah 21:6

About Andrea Sefler

Andrea Sefler
Andrea is a consultant and technical writer for various scientific software and instrumentation companies. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Berkeley and has never met a genre of music or books that she hasn’t liked. As a gamer since the days of the Apple II, Andrea can relate any number of hair-raising tales about role-playing games stored on 360 kB 5.25” floppy disks and may, someday, put them to paper.

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