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Harper Lee and the death of moral certainty

Ellena Savage |  21 February 2016

Scout Finch, the kid heroine of To Kill a Mockingbird, was born colour blind. This is how she says it when she's 26 and goes by her adult name Jean Louise. She says it like this right after she's discovered that Atticus Finch, the rock of her life, is not the sturdy monolith she had counted on. He's frail and movable and, to his devoted daughter, suddenly, profoundly disappointing.

Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A MockingbirdFlannery O'Connor was right when she said that To Kill a Mockingbird was a good novel — for children. 'When I was 15 I would have loved it,' she wrote to a friend.

O'Connor's own stories, steeped in the mud of a gothic, Catholic uncertainly, could never be classed as morally sure. Accordingly, her stories did not tap into the desires of the masses the way Mockingbird did. She didn't make it into the required reading lists set for every 15-year-old English student over the next 50 years.

My best friend Z and I sat side by side while we — at 15, of course — studied the novel. Now Z lives in Detroit and is rocked, she says, by the racial segregation she's exposed to there.

We talked about Harper Lee's death, how moved we were by it, having bonded as kids over the passionate conversations and letters the novel inspired. She said, 'I was in awe of Atticus and his relationship with his children. I remember how much of a hero he was to me, how desperately I wanted for him to save the accused black man.

'Maybe if I had read it at my age now, I'd substitute the black man for the hero.'

She articulated what I couldn't: that as gorgeous in its depiction of mid-century southern summers, as moving a piece of rhetoric it is, Mockingbird is no longer an adequate text. At least not adequate for studying the opacity of human entanglement. Its morality is too saccharine, too outrageously simple.

Now is not the time to invest the hopes for radical change in the hands of men who benefit from things staying more or less the same.

Mockingbird is a fable of benevolent white liberalism, and benevolent white liberalism, in real life, has not delivered on its utopian promise.

Sixty years on, racial equality has not been substantiated here or in the states, and the institutions that this worldview rests on, and which Atticus Finch epitomises — justice (the law), knowledge (education), pragmatism (capitalism), and moderation (protestant ethics) — have proven to be woefully underequipped to incite material change.

Enter Go Set a Watchman, Lee's second published novel, which was released late last year. It was slated as a sequel to Mockingbird but was in fact an early draft of the novel — the prose is less assured, and the structure fairly clunky and shapeless.

But, the moral muck! In this incarnation, set 20 years after Mockingbird, Jean Louise comes back home to Maycomb from New York. 'She wondered why she never thought her country beautiful,' Lee writes of Jean Louise's passage back home. Home won't be beautiful, we discover, until Jean Louise learns to unpack her childish beliefs in her father's moral certainty.

In Watchman, Atticus is kind, yes, moderate, yes, thoughtful, sure: but he is also wrong. In his old age, he has stretched his pragmatic moderation to favour Jim Crow segregation laws.

In Mockingbird, the Maycomb County courthouse is a site of Atticus' impassioned pleas to equality: 'Gentlemen, if there's one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.' In Watchman, it's the meeting place for white segregationists (including Atticus) to collectively convince themselves of their divine right to lead, to dictate how far civil rights will extend.

The interesting parallel between the novels is that Mockingbird's Atticus is Watchman's Atticus — the character's trajectory is clear, and this is shocking only because of the vaunted place To Kill a Mockingbird enjoys in its many readers lives. Atticus Finch was godly. How can he be complicit, too?

Watchman is titled after a passage in Isiah, verse six:

'For thus the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.'

With this, Lee infers that you need to have some distance to really see. And that someone needs to be keeping watch.

The sad thing is, Lee's death might have gone completely unnoticed if Go Set a Watchman had been released instead of To Kill a Mockingbird back in 1960.

She might never have won the Pulitzer, sold 40 million copies of her first novel, or gotten onto year ten reading lists, because Watchman tells the story of hard truths, rather than the ones our hearts wish to believe in. That we're complicit when we think we're not; that we never really have the distance to be our own watchmen.


Ellena SavageEllena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing.



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Submitted comments

Harper Lee wrote a masterpiece "To Kill A Mockingbird". Many writers produce great novels but masterpieces are not so common. Arthur 'Boo' Radley is the hero of the story, not Atticus Finch. And Scout is one sassy kid. I have your book, Harper Lee, and I cherish it.

Pam 22 February 2016

Wonderful Ellena.

Mike Bowden 22 February 2016

"Watchman tells the story of hard truths, rather than the ones our hearts wish to believe in." Pope Francis recently pointed out that to be really Christian, we need to build bridges rather than to set up walls or barriers to those in need. As the Pontifex Maximus,( the Supreme Bridge Builder), the Pope realises there are many ways of building bridges, just as there are many ways to set up barriers; physical ones such as naval blockades, and off-shore detention centres; and verbal ones such as devising terms like 'queue jumpers', and 'preventing drowning at sea', as cloaks for inhumane treatment of refugees. Other bridges such as providing adequate help in assimilating refugees, if neglected, equate to barriers. The practical Christianity of many politicians is challenged

Robert Liddy 22 February 2016

Hi there, I think you have made some wonderful, very moving points. However I beg to disagree on several issues. For one. I don't think one is complicit just because the situation has not changed much. Because that's only from one person's viewpoint. The individual perspective is too tiny to measure the entire scope of transitions that are part of the human condition. However much you travel or think you KNOW, the fact is that you will never know everything, including the mysteries of the universe. And I personally do not allow myself to be drawn into other people's version of reality. If it suits me to see the world as perfect and constantly changing each moment in its evolution, then I cherish that blessed view. If someone else feels its naive. Thats their point of view and its brought on by their view of reality. Scott Finch's view is the vew the innocence in all of us knows to be true. And its as true as a conservative viewpoint, which also has a world of history behind it. And is also true. If you examine your repeated thoughts, you'll realise what your belief system is. And when you realise that this belief system is flexible, and part of the creation, preservation and destruction cycle of the universe, then everything is beautiful. There is no clashing point of view. No loss of innocence. Only endless evolution and experience.And then you are the Watchman. When you don't,you're in a world of conflict and pain. But you have the choice either ways. Because of free will. Which is really the way you tailor your reality.And if you haven't realised you can make this choice, then its only because evolution has it patterned that way. I'm very sure of myself when I say all this for some fathomless reason. But I cannot be sure to the point of inflexibility either! cheers shana

shana maria verghis 22 February 2016

Read Go Set a Watchman, then reread the other. I think the beauty in the second is the growing up of Scout- not into denial- and worship of her father, not into judgement of the people, including her father, in her childhood town, but in being able to gently and clearly call to account, to support change, to challenge, as in the quote " your friends needs you most when they are wrong" ( or something to that effect).... it tilts really at the whole of society- the holier than thou as well as the racist in all their forms, and then comes alongside.

Barbara Mann 22 February 2016

When we are teenagers we tend to want a moral universe where good triumphs over evil. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' presents this sort of universe. Real life is not that simple and many bad things, such as racial prejudice and de facto racial segregation, as your friend Z observed in Detroit, still continue. Literature and Life are not quite the same thing. I think we have to look to the real world and see the genuine improvements made by the likes of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and the Freedom Marchers, Nelson Mandela and the ANU and so many Aboriginal Australian activists like the late Charles Perkins. The struggle for a better, more equitable world continues. Sometimes it is achieved in seemingly minor steps without fanfare.

Edward Fido 23 February 2016

When my high school class was reading Mockingbird in the mid-to late-80s, a new student arrived at or school, a Vietnamese guy. He was bullied relentlessly by a couple of the bullies who did the same to others - but this guy was singed out by one bully who claimed his father fought in the Vietnam War. Eventually one day the Vietnamese student brough a knife to school - didn't use it - but showed it when he was threatened by the thug. He was expelled immediately, the bully stayed. And we kept on reading Mockingbird.

Aurelius 23 February 2016

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