I guess it’s like an airplane: they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy – it’s a matter of balance.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. This is Scout’s final realisation in Go Set a Watchman, that her father, the incomparable Atticus Finch, is in fact merely a human after all with a human conscience and human flaws, and with it Harper Lee brings to a shattering close the story that defined the 20th century.
The revelations about Atticus’ character have sent the millions upon millions of readers inspired over the generations by Lee’s words to go clamouring to the mattresses, to an extent that some critics are now labelling her as inherently racist to begin with, advocating an accommodationist stance at the end of Watchman and so contradicting many of the arguments underpinning Mockingbird.
But this interpretation is the failing of the reader, not of the writer.
You’ve completely got the wrong end of the stick if you’re reading Watchman as a sequel, even more so as a novel in its own right written and published fifty-five years after its predecessor. We have to analyse it through a carefully adjusted critical lens coloured with Mockingbird, the political and social climate of 1950s Alabama, and with the knowledge of what it actually is. Watchman was written before Mockingbird, was never intended to be published, and serves almost like an extended short story that would merely inspire the latter. Its characters are first drafts, its politics are unrefined and contradictory, and its plot revolves around a single moment of spectacular disillusionment that is eventually deemed secondary in importance to the superior story of a child’s innocent philosophising set twenty years earlier.
In short, Mockingbird is about the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl in the small fictional town of Maycomb in 1930s Alabama, a town very reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo in its eccentric history, riotous social machinations and ancient familial fueds (though we should really compare Macondo to Maycomb and not the other way around as One Hundred Years of Solitude was published seven years after Mockingbird).
The story revolves around rebellious 9 year old Scout Finch, her boisterous older brother Jem, and their venerable father Atticus, an Abraham Lincoln-like paragon of moral virtue who defends Tom Robinson in the courtroom. These three characters in particular have such detail, such voice, it is almost inconceivable to think that they are not actually real people, one of the reasons why they have enchanted readers for decades. Scout, constantly fighting against social convention and gender stereotypes is endlessly endearing and fiercely inquisitive about the world around her. She follows her brother everywhere, and they both worship the unfailingly just and noble Atticus, ahead of his time in the sheer unconditionality of his morality.
The ingeniously comic family politics of Maycomb, beautifully satirical in their depiction of the South, again have that Marquezian characteristic of each surname being synonymous to certain mannerisms. As for the Finches, well they’ve never been massively rich, nor as big as some of the other cotton empires, but there has always been a Finch at Finch Landing. This esteemed history is lost on Scout and Jem as they become infamous in Maycomb, along with their eccentric friend Dill, for their wild garden plays, fist fights and games, the wildest of which involves the harassment of their mysterious neighbour, Boo Radley… no one has seen him in decades, some believe him dead, others believe him to be a “malevolent phantom” who only walks at night, but Scout, Jem and Dill dedicate their waking hours to the Homeric task of trying to get him to appear.
Boo turns out to be possibly the most important character in the entire book.
It is the trial, however, that people remember. Of course Tom Robinson is innocent and Atticus manages to prove it, but the jury still condemn him unanimously as guilty. We then see Scout desperately trying to understand why it is okay to hate Hitler and be red-faced and outraged about his persecution of Jewish people, but then turn around and treat black people the exact same way. Her teacher, Miss Gates, explains Germany is a dictatorship and America is a democracy, which means they are prejudiced against no one and all are equal. But she then goes on to spout racist bile at Tom’s trial…
“It’s time somebody taught ‘em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us.”
Perhaps the most shocking moment comes at the end of the novel when Scout and Jem are viciously attacked walking home one night by Bob Ewell, the father of the girl who accused Tom. Atticus pretty much proves she had really been raped by Ewell, and the latter was so incensed he took it into his head to murder Atticus’ children on their way back from the local Halloween party. The darkly comic image of Scout dressed in rings of chicken wire as a giant ham is made all the more disturbing by the fact it probably saves her life, while Jem suffers a severely broken arm and is knocked out cold by their assailant. What neither of them see, however, is the identity of their mysterious saviour.
As Jem is tended to back home, their draconian Aunt Alexandra, who scolds her niece constantly about her manners and behavior, absent-mindedly and rather poignantly brings Scout her overalls to change into after the assault instead of a dress. And given how much her Aunt despises this outfit Scout is suddenly struck by how much she is really loved. That’s when she notices the stranger standing in the corner of Jem’s room like a shadow on the wall, the man who saved their lives and carried them home.
It is Boo Radley.
And this is the true beauty of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Who is truly the mockingbird, Tom or Boo? Or are the mockingbirds really everywhere, in every person who is treated differently because of the way they look or act or speak?
Boo’s secret paternal love for these two children made him in many respects their guardian angel, even though they feared him above all. For these two children who were always so brave, who balked at nothing, who defeated a lynch mob with a few casual words, the one person they feared most in the world turned out to be their greatest protector.
Their observations of evil and its effects on the innocent gave them a profound understanding of it. Atticus, for instance, experienced evil without being corrupted by it, maintaining his faith in justice and the ultimate benevolence of humanity. Others, however, are embittered by violence and injustice and are disillusioned to the point of giving up hope.
These are the mockingbirds.
They are the innocents damaged by evil: Tom, Jem, Dill, Boo… But the latter represents the ultimate reconciliation and epitomises the moral lesson at the heart of the book, that we should never put prejudice and cruelty over compassion and humanity. Society, Scout and Jem included, judged Boo for years without ever having properly met him, without any understanding of his character. While Tom is destroyed in the end by the injustice inflicted on him, Boo is in many ways pulled back from the brink by the sheer innocence of the two children he watched over selflessly for years and the reconciliatory effect this vigil had on his soul.
He was the mockingbird who survived.
But should our interpretation of this remarkable story, treasured worldwide, now change?
Go Set a Watchman takes place twenty years later, with Scout returning to Maycomb on holiday from New York with her potential husband, Frank Clinton, to find her home irreconcilably changed. At first the book revolves around her fractious relationship with Frank, who was supposedly also a childhood friend, and has now become Atticus’ protégé. This is when we learn, in a heartless, offhand statement, that Jem has died.
Later, details are revealed that he had a heart attack outside his father’s office when he was 28, the same way his mother died, but nothing could stop this revelation being as abrupt and shocking as that moment when Charlotte Haze gets hit by the car in Nabokov’s Lolita. There is also little mention of Dill until we discover he joined the army long ago. Aunt Alexandra is still living with Atticus, but their brother Jack has also moved nearby.
Several flashbacks also lace the story, one involving Scout’s first period, an event which fills her with rage, pitching her into an abyss of depression, which the other girls at school call the “Curse o’ Eve”. She is then sent into nine months of howling despair when one girl tells her you become pregnant from a “French kiss”, which she had received unexpectedly from a Coningham boy earlier that day. She resolves to kill herself before the nine months is up. Calpurnia eventually explains. This is pretty funny, but admittedly wildly disturbing.
The key moment of the novel, however, the only key moment really, comes when Scout, now known by her real name, Jean Louise, follows Atticus and Frank to a mysterious council meeting at the courthouse to see them sitting at the same table as a deeply racist man lecturing his audience about “The Black Plague” and the catastrophic dangers posed by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People established in 1909 and still campaigning for civil rights today).
Scout flees the place in utter revulsion, making herself sick, wanting to die, and generally going through several hours of melodramatic horror and outrage as Atticus is sent crashing from his pedestal and into the mud. She screams at Frank, she screams at Atticus, and while she curses and rages at the latter, saying she hates him, that he has killed her and that she will leave forever, he does not even defend himself.
She races home in a rage to leave immediately, reducing Alexandra very uncharacteristically to tears, and is at the car when Uncle Jack strikes her hard across the face. He takes her back into the house, gives her whisky, and reasons with her by explaining how Atticus is a God in her eyes, that she is merely seeing him fall to a human being and the only way that was ever going to happen was if he killed her or she killed herself, to develop her own conscience… According to him, she had merely shared one with Atticus. Jack then puts his perspective on history, explaining the position of the white supremacists and their racial prejudices and that though the Confederates were in part fighting for slavery, it was really about identity.
But wait, it gets better.
He tells her she was born “colour blind” and that she always will be, but people in Maycomb just want integration by degrees as they are outnumbered and “Negroes” simply don’t have the education yet to take over the councils and courts and government if they all vote, seemingly arguing that you are born with your views and prejudices so shouldn’t be blamed for them, claptrap of the highest degree.
He goes on to explain that if someone lashes out at any opinion they disagree with then they will never learn, they are bigoted, and cold reason beats them… one has to be able to listen to other opinions and argue with them rationally. He says she should come back to the South, to Maycomb, because it needs her, they need more people arguing her opinions, she is not alone… because “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”
Somehow, she is persuaded to pick Atticus up from the office, where she basically tells him she’s really sorry, didn’t understand, but can’t agree with him anyway. He says he’s really proud of her as she has developed her own conscience, her own “watchman”, and she replies stating how much she really loves him…
This is an “I love Big Brother” moment if ever there was one.
After the final discussion with her uncle, in the horrifying moment she comes to terms with what has just happened and perplexingly resolves to just accept it, she thinks to herself… Childe Rowland to the dark tower came. This is perhaps the most poignant line in the entire novel, even more so than the biblical reference to go set a watchman.
The quote originally comes from an ancient Scandinavian fairytale about four children who battle with the evil King of Elfland after he kidnaps one of them and imprisons them in his “Dark Tower”. It was made famous when Shakespeare included it in the nonsensical ramblings of Edgar in King Lear, after which it was taken as the title and final line of Robert Browning’s beloved 1855 poem, which tells the story of Rowland’s nightmarish quest to the notorious and elusive Dark Tower. It has been used since as a reference to the dark journey one takes to some horrifying realisation.
And with both Scout’s and the reader’s arrival at the Dark Tower, comes the accusations of racism in both novels and the utter decimation of Atticus’ character.
Is this fair? That’s the question.
The fact that it was written first cannot be stressed enough. Several paragraphs in Watchman are actually copied word for word in Mockingbird, and key facts are fundamentally different. For instance, in Watchman we learn Tom Robinson was acquitted, changing the fact at the very core of Mockingbird. This in itself proves Watchman’s role as a sort of parallel universe, the cynical account of the atmosphere in the 1950s, when it was set and written, but ultimately, as the inspiration for a new novel that was instead about hope, the hope that one day a jury would not lie, perceptions would not be prejudiced, and mockingbirds would be free to fly.
So what can we really take from both novels?
Mockingbird is all about the mockingbirds, it’s as simple as that. It tackles the subjective morality of justice, how evil embitters innocence, the reconciliatory force of compassion, and the prejudice of perception. Indeed, its greatest achievement is in teaching us about perception.
But Watchman is all about reaching the Dark Tower and realising everyone has a conscience and we must fight for what we believe in with rational debate even when our world seems to be falling apart around us. Everyone has their own watchman, everyone is flawed, frankly, everyone is human. It’s the watchmen that rule our world.
The latter informs the former simply with the fact that it wasn’t published.
Harper Lee rejected disillusionment and instead wrote a story about innocence, compassion and justice in a world spinning out of control. When Jem bleakly asks his father why the jury condemned Tom, Atticus wearily replies, “I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”
But with Boo Radley comes that hope… the hope that one day a jury will not lie, perceptions will not be prejudiced, and mockingbirds will be free to fly.
So, ay, there’s the rub… Why then has Watchman been published now? Why hasn’t it been left in Lee’s drawer to be lost like Cardenio?
Aside from the fact it’s significant to now know how Mockingbird initially began, this sudden publication after the death of Harper’s protective sister Alice is down to conniving publishers taking advantage of a highly private 89 year old author who is now in a nursing home. But perhaps we can come up with a simpler and more optimistic answer.
Atticus Finch in Watchman, who we should consider a completely separate character from Atticus Finch in Mockingbird, is a backward and weary old man struggling to come to terms with a changing world. It’s down to those changing it to be his watchmen, to lead him away from that Dark Tower and into the future.
Maybe the 20th century was about the mockingbirds but the 21st century is about the watchmen.