Before I start, I just want to warn that there are mild spoilers in this – no big ones, but if you want to avoid everything before you read the book, then probably don’t read this until you’re finished!
Saint. Hero. Fictional father.
Yesterday, I ran out of the house at 10am to get my copy of Go Set A Watchman. I had a long discussion with the lovely lady on the checkout in Waterstones (sorry for holding you up by the way!) about my nerves about the book. I didn’t want the book that perfectly envisaged a simple, uncomplicated way of understanding the world and how you should see it to become tainted and spoiled by these new, grown up, complicated characters.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
This is just one of the quotes that has stuck with me since fourth year of high school, when I first picked up a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. A lesson which I had already been taught by own parents. Maybe that’s why it struck a chord with me, and why Atticus became so much of role model to me, and probably to so many other people. Atticus was patient, understanding, loving, and he taught his children lessons in an all-knowing way. He always seemed to know what his children were up to before they did it, and they idolised him because he always knew exactly what they needed to hear.
When I was young, that’s what my parents were to me. They knew when I was going to jump on the bed. They knew when I was upset without me needing to say anything. They knew when I’d taken haribo from the sweet box when I wasn’t supposed to. And Atticus is exactly the same as that, the perfect parent.
Scout loves her dad, and idolises him in the way we all do if we have parents like Atticus growing up. They are perfect, they are loving, they are amazing in every way. It’s when you begin to grow up that you realise they’re not perfect, no matter how amazing they still are. You understand that a lot of what they do is guess work. You begin to question the things they tell you because that’s just part of growing up.
I opened Go Set A Watchman, after having read reviews hailing Atticus as a ‘racist old man’. There was so much anxiety in my stomach I didn’t know if I could bear starting it. (Especially with that Jem bombshell in chapter one!) Every page I turned I was absolutely terrified because I was waiting for racist Atticus to appear and start yelling obscenities at me.
However, halfway through the book, Atticus was still the same. The sensible man, older now, but still wise, still thoughtful, still clever.
And then the court scene came.
I cried, I’m not going to lie. Something in my head was screaming: ‘This isn’t you, Atticus! What are you doing! You don’t belong here!’
But then I realised – that is precisely what Scout (aka Jean Louise) was screaming in her own head. She was horrified, physically sick, because that’s what she was seeing as well. Her perfect father was not so perfect anymore.
I started to feel a bit better because I suddenly realised how clever this book had been. By revealing this part of Atticus to us in this way, we understood exactly what Scout was going through. We became Scout. I’ve honestly never felt so much a part of a book before.
When the confrontation between Scout and Atticus came, I felt such a deep sense of relief, even though Scout didn’t.
Because we are reading the scene from a biased point of view. Scout assumed the worst. She saw her father in a situation which was such a shock, she assumed the worst.
To understand what was happening, I had to google a lot about American politics – but I understood eventually. Atticus didn’t think that equality was wrong…he just thought that the way they were going about it was wrong. Which was what Scout, and ultimately the reader, was disagreeing with.
The press describing Atticus as an old racist is the perfect example of the way we feel while reading the book. Atticus, for us, is our father, and everyone, while reading this book, assumed the worst of him because of our preconceived notions of him as the perfect character.
Growing up is about questioning things. But it is also about realising that there are opinions which oppose your own. And that is exactly what Atticus teaches Scout in this book.
Surely, then, this is the same Atticus who taught Scout that everyone deserves their point of view to be seen? That everyone deserves a fair trial? That everyone is equal? He is doing the same thing he has done again and again because that is who he is. The lessons are more complex now because Scout is older now – she is Jean Louise, no longer a young girl obsessed with the scary man across the road.
For us, too, the lesson becomes more complex. We learn that people are complex, and that just because we don’t agree with something, Atticus’ views on this Supreme Court ruling in this case, it doesn’t mean that he is a bad person. It seems almost humorous that the majority of the press coverage is so shocked about the apparent change in Atticus that they completely avoid what we are supposed to be learning.
To Kill A Mockingbird was a book from a young child’s perspective, with a simple lesson fit for a child. Sometimes the simplicity of a child is exactly what we need to understand parts of life.
Go Set A Watchman, however, teaches a much more complicated lesson of understanding the complexity of life and being your own person. And, for me, again I saw the threads of what Atticus told Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird – if we had only stepped into Atticus’ skin, or Hank’s, then we might have been more understanding, even if we had not agreed.
I’m not sure that this completely sums up what I felt about the book, but I wanted to combat the idea that this book was bad because Atticus had changed – I disagree wholeheartedly, and can’t wait to read the book again…more slowly this time!