In all my years of teaching high school English, my favorite part of each school year was introducing my students to Scout, Jem, Dill, and most of all, Atticus Finch. I read and taught To Kill a Mockingbird approximately six times a day, six weeks at a time, for four years in a row (the other few years I wasn’t teaching freshmen, so it wasn’t in my curriculum). Needless to say, I have developed a deep love for Maycomb.
Mockingbird is told from Scout’s perspective, ages six to nine. We learn about Atticus and Maycomb’s ways through her eyes, knee-high-to-a-grasshopper. We are regaled with fanciful childhood tales of adventure, alongside Jem and Dill. Harper Lee sweeps you up in the Deep South’s pre-WWII way of life. Up to a certain point, the scariest thing Scout had encountered was Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose…and just when you’re good and settled in this magical, southern atmosphere, Lee opens your eyes to something ugly. Racism. Of the Deep South variety. She does the exact same thing in Watchman. Except this time, we’ve had fifty-five years to get good and settled in Scout’s childhood.
Go Set a Watchman takes place twenty years later (albeit written first), and is told in third-person. We are no longer seeing Maycomb only through Scout’s eyes. It is very much a parallel text, but it stands alone. While written sixty years ago, reading it through the lens of our current racial climate lends it more credence.
Twenty years of life experience gives us all a new perspective on our own parents; Scout is no different. We go from a rose-colored view of Atticus (who I like to refer to as Literary Jesus), to a man. That’s it. Simply a man. His white, flowing robes of righteousness are removed to reveal a very real human — not the deity we all want him to be. He is a man with faults, idiosyncrasies, and hidden pain behind his eyes.
Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout in 1962, sums it up quite accurately:
“The difference between Mockingbird and Watchman gets down to this: The first book was an idealized view of a father, Atticus Finch, from a child’s viewpoint; the new book is about seeing your parents as an adult. He’s making compromises that you had to make in order to survive in the South…. What you have to do is put your mindset in that time period, and you have to understand what we lived through. When you read the book, you’ll get it… The root of all evil is ignorance. Education is the key to freedom.” (Find her quotes here and here.)
Perhaps Atticus Finch never changed. Scout did. Miss Jean Louise Finch grew up, and it’s jarring for readers to go from the innocent perspective of six-year-old Scout to twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise.
Go Set a Watchman, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is beautiful and timely and poignant and impactful. But it is all of those things (and more) in its own right. Lee’s a truth-teller through and through…even when the truth makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s when the truth matters most. Turns out, Atticus is still right: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”