Go Set a Watchman: Why it’s okay that Atticus Finch is racist

Race is difficult to talk about. It’s hard to say anything on the subject of race with any depth without A) someone being offended by what you actually said, B) someone being offended by what they think you said, or C) someone being offended by what you did not say. So the following I say with a healthy dose of trepidation: I like Go Set a Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman is the sequel novel to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee that came out last week. As the book’s release approached, many critics and reviewers denounced the book because Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved characters in all of literature, reportedly turns out to be racist. This is true. Atticus is a racist. He sits on a Citizens’ Council, he went to one Ku Klux Klan meeting in his youth, and he believes in segregation. People can’t handle this, and they can’t believe that the man once portrayed so artfully by Gregory Peck is not the moral ideal. What they fail to realize though, is that that’s the point.

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To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading in most of America’s high schools, and for good reason. You have ten-year-old Scout in the middle of a whole lot of prejudice, watching events that would form a cornerstone of her personality. She sees her lawyer father defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, and from that moment on, she becomes a progressive and her father becomes her idol. Scout, and most people who read the book, put Atticus Finch on a pedestal, making him a beacon of virtue in an unjust world. That’s what makes Mockingbird important. The audience learns that the world is cruel and wicked, but the truly moral will stand up for what’s right even if they lose the fight.

Go Set a Watchman: Why it's okay that Atticus Finch is racist

Go Set a Watchman is different, but equally important. Where Mockingbird deals with right and wrong, and black and white, Watchman deals with privilege, false gods and perceptions, and ethical gray areas.

The title comes from the Bible, Isaiah 21:6. I won’t quote it at you, but I will tell you it’s when Babylon is falling and God says to have someone be on lookout. In the novel, Jean Louise’s (Scout’s) uncle tells her that her watchman is her conscience, and that everyone needs their own. The problem is, Jean Louise, again like most readers, made Atticus their watchman, but in doing so robbed him of his humanity. The Atticus everyone thought they knew was not allowed to have flaws, because we needed him to be our watchman and tell us what was right and what was wrong. But when Jean Louise finds out that he’s human and flawed, her reaction is much like the fans who refuse to read the book: they can’t stomach it.

I’m going to digress for a moment to talk about Inside Out (I have a point, I swear). Part of the plot of Inside Out is that everyone has specific memories of their life that directly influence who they are as people. When those memories are removed, that aspect of the person’s personality starts to crumble, and that’s what happens to Scout. And just like in Inside Out, she needed this to happen to become a more emotionally complete person. Scout needs to “turn and tackle no less than [her] own tin God” before she can become her own person, instead of projecting what she thinks is moral on that God. Atticus Island needs to fall so that Integrity Island can rise.

The problem with this is that fans of Atticus are afraid to let this happen. I think this is partly because they don’t want to believe that they too are capable of racism. In Mockingbird, the racism was very binary. There were characters who were racist, and there were characters who were not, but Watchman is both more extreme and more nuanced.

There are more racist people, but there are more types of racist people, and no character (save, perhaps one) is portrayed as absolutely good. Even Jean Louise is called a bigot toward the end because she refuses to listen to anyone she thinks is wrong. People don’t want to know that someone can be progressive and narrow-minded at the same time. They don’t want to believe that someone can fight for a man wrongfully accused of a crime, but still support segregation. People don’t want good and evil, they want Good and Evil, so they know exactly where they stand. But if it were that easy, we wouldn’t need to set a watchman; we would just know.

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