All the Critical Backlash Over "Go Set A Watchman" is Missing the Point

How could Harper Lee take the man we grew up holding deep in our hearts and turn him into such an ignorant monster?
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Laura Alexander
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How could Harper Lee take the man we grew up holding deep in our hearts and turn him into such an ignorant monster?

Since its highly-anticipated release earlier this month, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has gotten quite a bit of backlash. Even before the official release date, rumors spread that Atticus Finch, our beloved, justice-seeking hero, is depicted as a racist in the new novel. Once reviews of the book started coming out, this was also their main focus; how could Harper Lee take the man we grew up holding deep in our hearts and turn him into such an ignorant monster? Clearly, she was right to keep it to herself for so many years!

It’s safe to say that is pretty much the only thing I’ve heard about the novel over the past couple weeks, which led me and probably everyone else following the media to believe that the book itself must be centered on racism and the awful things some imposter in Atticus Finch’s clothing says and does. Which then led people to believe that the book was simply not worth reading at all. That is where I strayed from the pack a little.

Curiosity and a little something called faith in the artist got the best of me, and I picked up the book earlier this week. I devoured it in two days, finding myself unable to take my eyes off of the pages from the moment I started. It brought all of the things a good novel should: belly laughs, a deep stinging behind the eyes, and some pretty severe nods of agreement. The fact that Harper Lee can write an enthralling piece of literature is no surprise, though. The real surprise, for me, was that the book was not about racism at all.

I’m not going to try to sugarcoat it for you all, so here it is: Yes, Atticus Finch is racist. He vocally defends the preservation of segregation at several points in the novel. Are you disappointed? Heartbroken? Feeling like your worst fears have come true? Good, because that’s the point. Whether we agree with the author’s use of racism to get her point across is irrelevant here, because it was never meant to be the main focus for the reader anyway. The main focus of this novel, the thing Lee really wants us to understand, is that no matter how smart, kind, admirable, or Atticus Finch-like our heroes are, they will still fall short sometimes. We have to be strong enough to disagree with our idols, to challenge their ideas with our own rather than to blindly adopt every belief they have as our own. That is a rather devastating thing to realize, so it is depicted to us through Atticus Finch’s devastation of his daughter.

When Jean-Louise—referred to mostly by her real name, further representing the loss of her childhood smokescreen—finds out things about her father that she never wanted to know, she is both furious with him for sheltering her from the truth and deeply disappointed that her divine view of him can no longer be her reality. For a good portion of the book she plans to leave Maycomb and never speak to her father again, therefore running from the true version of him that she never expected and never wanted to know. This is a natural human reaction, but it is eventually concluded that this is not the correct reaction.

After much resistance, Jean-Louise realizes that her time and effort would be better spent defending her beliefs, rather than turning her back on Maycomb and leaving behind all of the people who refuse to progress and to allow others a fighting chance at equality. She realizes that her father, as well as everyone else in the town, is human, and that in order to see him as human she had to hate him first, to balance out the 26 years she spent believing him to be far more than that. She discovers that she can still have a relationship with her father, but only once she truly becomes an individual. That just because he was her hero for so long doesn’t mean she has to go along with everything he says. That maybe, he is wrong for once, and that rather than sulking about it, she has the power to open his eyes to what is right.

Some people believe that this book should never have been seen by the public. There are several theories about what it is or was meant to be, and the circumstances under which it was published. No matter how or why it came to be, I’m glad that we were given access to this work. It covers some sensitive topics and there are a few ideas presented by certain characters—including Atticus—that made me uncomfortable, but the work in no way defends or encourages these notions. It rather uses them to create three-dimensional, flawed characters who break our hearts the way that real, flawed people do. 

The book caught me at a time when I am also realizing that the people I assumed to be super-human throughout my life are actually mere mortals, and this is not an easy thing to come to terms with. For that reason, I am grateful to be able to watch Jean-Louise go through the same thing.

Her rage, disappointment, and utter confusion were familiar to me. The same way I related to her self-consciousness and fear of bullies when reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I related to her rage and realization of what the world truly is in Go Set a Watchman. My heroes never did anything as appalling as support segregation, but the extremity of Atticus Finch’s flaws and Jean-Louise’s ability to eventually process and form her own opinions of them inspire me to stay strong and remember who I am even when I am forced to question who the people I look up to are inside.

As for those who ignorantly turn from the book because this isn’t exactly what they expected, they are doing the very thing Lee warns against: running from the pain that comes with seeing people for who they really are. Who’s to say an author can’t break your heart to open your eyes? Who’s to say you are owed a happy ending and for a character you fell in love with to stay the same forever and never disappoint you? No matter how big, smart, or reliable your heroes, they are not perfect, and shunning them from your life rather than standing up for yourself and helping them work through their flaws doesn’t solve anything. 

When your heroes fall before you, it is not time to fall apart. It’s time to gather your strength, reinstate your presence, and fight for what is right, even if the ones you look up to don’t agree. After all, “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”