Facing the Changing Father Figure in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

During the glorious summer weeks leading up to the July 14th release date of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s second novel and sequel to every 11th grader’s favorite, To Kill A Mockingbird, I’d heard everything. From admonitions from those who descried a sequel, to controversies about Ms. Lee’s mental state, there was no shortage of opinions or speculation about the relative merit and eventual  legacy of Ms. Lee’s follow-up to the coming-of-agWatchmane story of Scout, Jem, Dill (remembering these names yet?), and Boo Radley.

Thanks to my student membership in Amazon Prime (highly recommended), my crisp copy of the book arrived on release day.

I was all set to write a simple review, with a tongue-in-cheek, under-qualified “thumbs up/thumbs down” at its conclusion, but then I felt I would be doing the book a disservice in comparison to the deep cultural reactions from my friends as well as those folks covered in the press.

I wondered, perhaps even aloud, “What could I do to make my reading of the book meaningful to others?” I decided that I would take up as my audience an imagined version of my students, themselves bound to wonder if their instructors actually practice what they (t)each when it comes to doing critical reading.

They do . . .Watchman 2

The story itself features but a handful of characters, few of whom can be found in Mockingbird. I was unprepared to learn quite early on that Jem, Scout’s older brother, had dropped dead. Yes, he just dropped dead (this knowledge becomes more significant later on, but as I read it the first time I found myself writing a NSFW response in the margin of the text), so I wouldn’t be reading about a successful cannery that he and Dill incorporated, or about his exploits playing football for the Methodists.

No, this read what going to be much different from what I expected. Jem had been killed off so that we might focus more closely on Miss Jean Louise Finch, still referred to as “Scout” by family members and the other inhabitants of Maycomb, Alabama.

As I read, I made copious notes in my journal…Watchman 3

The events in Watchman take place twenty years after those of Mockingbird, although at points in the book we get brief snapshots of other time-bound events (without reference to the actual times to which the events are bound, of course). I later realized that this bit of foreshadowing allows us to better apprehend the import of Scout’s fragmented memory. It, much like the self-consciousness and conscience about which she was so proud, is not consistent. This is not really a surprise, though, since twenty years have passed.

However, what is surprising is that Scout has received a college education. The fact itself is not surprising, but as the story reaches its climax we are presented with reactions and thoughts from Scout that belie this education. This might be seized upon as a way to read the text against itself, but that paper would really belong in a different forum with an amazingly smaller readership.

The climax of which I speak is Scout’s clandestine attendance at a town meeting called to debate and discuss potential NAACP actions in Maycomb. At the same time as Scout does, we learn that Atticus Finch is not as perfect as our memories would like. One of the admonitions that stuck with me as I began the book concerned Atticus. In essence, many readers of Mockingbird did not want what their idealized father, Atticus, to be shown as anything “less than,” and they swore off reading Watchman to keep that ideal father alive. I sympathized…but then my sympathy turned. It turned to Scout and the symbolic ‘Scouts and Jems,’ many of whom, like the former, had received a college education. Suddenly, what Atticus had taught his daughter did not match her reality. However, I argue that it is not until this point in the book that Scout enters reality, a truer reality no longer veiled by the type of self-consciousness and conscience crafted for her by her father (it might help to recall the expression, “Do as I say, not as I do”).

The ideal, moralistic, Father-Man hero was never real. It was a carefully constructed disguise for Atticus to teach his children to be more than him, to be better than him. Scout cannot eclipse her father until learning that she is, in fact, “better” than him in a crucial way—her “colorblindness,” as she calls it, engendered her warmer view of humanity from her very birth. The “watch-man” set for Scout as her conscience cannot be; she must set him herself, be him herself. Somehow she did not learn this at her Georgia college. Jack, Atticus’s brother and Scout’s uncle, puts it to her quite clearly: “You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers . . .he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity” (265).

Each of us has a watch-man; we call him conscience. As we reach adulthood, we re-wind him and re-set him ourselves. Often, we are stirred to this action by experiences not unlike Scout’s.

At this point, I simply say read the book! I encourage you to tease out your own interpretations and respond to this blog post. You can use the comments section below, or you may send your own piece to TheCentralPen@centralpenn.edu

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Thomas Davis is a poet, musician, and avid reader working on his PhD. He is also an Associate Professor of English at Central Penn College, and co-editor of The Central Pen.

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