Mockingbird and Watchman

When I was a freshman in high school, our class was asked to read Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t remember much about the book, except a few lines that I liked enough to write down, but other than that I completely missed the point of the book, as I did with many other things my freshman year (long story).

Anyway, after many years, Harper Lee has finally published a sequel to Mockingbird, titled Go Set a Watchman. And the thought police are already upset about it because Atticus Finch is now supposedly represented as a racist.

I don’t think characters should act to please the sensibilities of readers. Characters need to act in a way that is natural for the character and the story. Now, I can understand if the outrage is because Atticus Finch acted completely different from the character established in Mockingbird. That’s warranted. But in real life, people have many different sides to them, and not all of those sides are agreeable. Why shouldn’t characters be the same way?

Also, Watchman was published 55 years after Mockingbird, so we are reading it from a totally different frame of reference. Had Watchman been published soon after it was written, it might have been better received by its audience. Perhaps Harper Lee did not do the right thing by waiting so long to publish it. No matter what, the book should be judged on its literary merits: Was it written well? Does it have an important message? Does it logically follow the storyline set up in Mockingbird? Do characters act in character?

And if you’re still upset about Atticus Finch, there are three things you can do: Write pointless comments on the Internet, write angry letters to Harper Lee and/or her publisher, or simply don’t read the book (or put the book down if you’re in the midst of it).

4 thoughts on “Mockingbird and Watchman

  1. I finished Watchman a few days ago and dove into Mockingbird. It’s remarkable how consistent Atticus is in both. But really, it’s not remarkable at all. Harper Lee always knew who Atticus was. I’m trying really hard to avoid any plot spoilers, but I think the readers who were hurt by Watchman are feeling what Scout felt. That’s what the best writing does. Also, it tackles issues that can’t be simplified into (no pun intended) black and white.

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  2. There are two questions that get muddled up in how people react to the book. One is its provenance (a recent piece in the New Yorker makes the case that it is very unlikely that the version which has been published is as Harper Lee wrote it, before she wrote Mockingbird, based on how it’s written).

    The other is the book itself, a work of art, apart from any question of where it came from or how. A lot of the angst seems based on whether Atticus is a racist — theoretically yes in one book and no in the other — as if “racist” was a yes/no characteristic in this complex world, and as if people don’t change over time.

    “I don’t think characters should act to please the sensibilities of readers.”

    Yes, absolutely. In the latest X-Men movie, Wolverine’s first appearance is walking down a ramp, and he stops at the bottom to light a cigar, thereby offending people who are deeply upset when people in movies — especially movies that kids are likely to watch — smoke. The moment is ridculous (years into a post-apocalyptic future, where would he get cigars?), but hey, he’s Wolverine, and he smokes. You got a problem with that, bub?

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    1. Right. I have even heard people saying that Harper Lee didn’t actually want to publish Watchman — someone coerced her into doing it.
      And characters should do what they want. Art mimics life, and real people are always doing what they want regardless of who’s watching.

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