Very few times have we had the pleasure of reading the sequel of a classic novel. In To Kill a Mocking Bird’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, 26 year-old Jean Scout Finch returns home from New York to the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama. After two decades since To Kill a Mocking Bird, we are taken back to the small town painted in our memories by young Scout and her brother Jem. It’s an extremely enchanting beginning as readers anticipate the new Maycomb and reuniting with our favourite characters.
All the excitement soon dies as Go Set a Watchman turns disastrous. Scout is still a loner even though she has a boyfriend, former childhood friend now working alongside her father. Jem Finch has passed away from a heart attack. Calpurnia, their former nanny, no longer lives at the Finch household. Atticus has moved house. The 72-year-old is ailing from rheumatoid arthritis. Maycomb’s olden hypocritical ideals and race prejudice still exist – like in most societies in real life. The only difference is that Maycomb is today more aware of its very own bigotry.
Atticus Finch, the lawmaker once upheld as the conscious of a community, has changed a lot. Scout finds a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague” among his papers. This prompts her to trail him to a Citizens’ Council meeting to spy on activities. Here she sees her father sit tight as a racist speech is delivered by one of the attendants. This is the man who raised and taught her and Jem that colour or race is no way of judging men. In To Kill a Mocking Bird, Atticus only stood for justice and openly shunned racism. He even defended the case of a black man charged with raping a white girl.
Scout is extremely baffled by the fact that her father would sit silently in such a gathering. This can only mean a few things. Atticus is today either racist or condones racism and racist ideals. This makes Scout literally sick (she even throws up) and repulsive towards her father and his associates. She feels like Atticus no longer lives by the very own non-partisan ideals that he instilled in his children, and entrusted upon a society. Even though Atticus saw her through “the malignant limbo of turning from a howling tomboy into a young woman,” he is no longer her icon. She feels inconsolably betrayed.
There is an accident that involved Calpurnia’s grandson who killed a drunk pedestrian while speeding. Atticus takes up the case but says that he’d rather do it before The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) takes it up, as he questions their contemporary policies and direction. This hurts Scout even more. The real Atticus would take this up simply for Calpurnia, the only mother figure his kids knew, not NAACP.
The turning point of the book is when Scout goes to visit Calpurnia. Her childhood is embedded in memories of Cal raising her and her brother like she would have raised her own children, giving them life lessons every day and even smacking them when she had to.
When she arrives, Cal’s household treats her coldly. To Scout and the reader, there’s an inexplicable moving power in seeing Cal having changed so much after many years. She no longer has strong large arms and hands. Remember the ones that quickly whipped lemonade and baked cakes back in the day? “How small she looks, thought Jean Louise. She used to be so tall. Calpurnia was old and she was bony.” As Scout tries to catch up with her and talk about her grandson’s case that Atticus is taking up, Cal is distant. She completely shuts her out. There is nothing Scout will say to get her attention; she won’t even look at her. She minimally talks about missing Jem and the fact that Atticus is always right.
The town’s contemporary race battles seem to have crept into Scout’s darling old Cal. This prompts Scout to ask a dangerous question that if the answer was Yes – she would be forever destroyed.
“Did you hate us?”
“The old woman sat silent, bearing the burden of her years … Finally, Calpurnia shook her head.”
I don’t doubt that Cal never hated them; I just wonder why she took time to respond and didn’t even utter a word. Maybe it’s because she hates them now or also feels as betrayed by Atticus’ change of heart. This moment leaves the reader and Scout so helpless and disillusioned. For a moment I wished Jem was there to protect Scout’s troubled heart. Where is your big brother when you need him? It’s such a heart-rending scene that literally broke me to tears.
Written before To Kill a Mocking Bird (Harper’s first and only other published book), Go Set a Watchman has sparked a lot of controversy, debate and negative reviews. To what extent can we critique a writer’s ethical criticism of literature? I hate that the book takes away the ideals we upheld about Atticus, and completely thank it for not doing the same to Cal.
Why overturn a hero’s legacy? The clean-cut character of Atticus Finch was humanised and celebrated the world over by many as one of the most important father figures in modern literature. Harper kills Atticus by making him racist. I would have rather she killed him in peace, like Jem passed away.
The book is generally a rollercoaster read – certain parts are boring and drag while others are extremely moving and engaging. Whatever the case, Harper Lee I wish you never published this first draft.