Why It’s Important to Read “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

GoSetWatchman

Before I started reading this book, I had heard the harsh criticism directed toward it. I decided not to let it stop me from reading the book and inquired of my Facebook friends if anyone had a copy I could borrow. My friend Amy came forth and said she had one which she had preordered and was still in the box. She said based upon what she heard, she could not bring herself to even open it. I told her I would let her know my thoughts and whether she should read it or not. After finishing, I say yes, read it. Here’s why.

First off, everyone needs to understand that this is not To Kill a Mockingbird, nor is it as good. Let’s be realistic—it would be quite a feat for any author to write two books of that caliber. But there is still an important message here that I feel is relevant to our current society.

OK, yes, Atticus Finch expresses racist ideas in this book. Now ask yourself: Why does that make you so angry and uncomfortable? While racism is repugnant and offensive, Atticus is a fictional character. So this visceral reaction that people have is something more than just a reaction to racism, and this gets to the heart of why reading this book is important. The negative response to this book, in my opinion, is because a person that we have come to idolize, albeit a fictional person, has failed to live up to our idealized expectations. This need that our culture has to expect our heroes and idols to be perfect is a real problem in our society. We place political leaders, sports stars, writers, artists, and so forth, all on pedestals and we want them to be perfect. One flaw, one aspect about them that does not agree with our image of how they should be, and we attack them viciously. It is a serious problem. With the election coming up, I hear people saying “I cannot support ________ because of his/her stance on _________.” It’s not a question of how good the candidate is, or whether that person would be the better leader; it is a question of whether that person meets ALL our expectations. If not, then they are not worthy in our eyes. Now it seems we have projected our expectations of perfection onto fictional characters as well. For me, there is something really wrong with this picture.

The irony here is that having our idols fall from grace is actually what this book is about. In the story, Jean Louise (Scout) sees her father fall from the proverbial pedestal. For many of us, our parents are our first idols, those we look up to for guidance and wisdom. It is often devastating when we are forced to confront the fact that our parents, like all our idols, have their flaws.

It happened so quickly that her stomach was still heaving. She breathed deeply to quieten it, but it would not stay still. She felt herself turning green with nausea, and she put her head down; try as she might she could not think, she only knew, and what she knew was this:

The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge. “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.

(p. 113)

Dealing with the disillusion that accompanies the realization that your idols (particularly parental ones) are not what you envision can have profound consequences, as evidenced by the plethora of patients seeking counseling for family issues. This is why it’s important to read this book, and face the fact that no one that we idolize can possibly meet our expectations. The expectations we set for other people by nature are not attainable.

I will close with another quote from this book which I thought was great.

Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.

(pp. 270 – 271)

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3 Comments

Filed under Literature

3 responses to “Why It’s Important to Read “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

  1. Wow, these are great original ideas! I read Go Set a Watchman a few weeks ago, after the hype settled down, and also wondered why everyone was so worked up about a fictional character. Your comments about the major problem in today’s society – expecting our heroes to be perfect – really hits on a point I had not thought about when I read the book (besides Scout’s disillusionment). It is a real problem. I do think that, since To Kill a Mockingbird was heavily edited and polished, someone along the line must have read Go Set a Watchman and said, “Ok, let’s take some of what you have about Atticus and turn him into a hero, but let’s edit out his racist views, they don’t fit into the flawless character we want.” People feel so betrayed by the older Atticus, when in fact, Harper Lee (and her editor, perhaps) was just beginning to develop Atticus’ traits. I’m glad I read Go Set a Watchman. It wasn’t as good, but it kind of grounds you to the whole hero idea, and frankly, what goes on behind the scenes when one book is edited into a different one.

    • Hi Barb. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! You also touch on some important issues regarding writing and character development. The Atticus of TKAM is a construct, created through heavy editing to become our flawless hero. It was very interesting to see where the character came from. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. — Jeff

  2. Pingback: A Tragic Day for Literature: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee | Stuff Jeff Reads

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