Friday, July 31, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - Climbing That Ethical Ladder



Who Sets the Watchmen?

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite novel. After reading its controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman, I'm wondering if it should be.

Which is not to say that Watchman is a bad novel. Nor is it to say that it tarnishes the legacy of its beloved predecessor. It does complicate that legacy. Go Set a Watchman is an intensely uncomfortable experience. In my opinion, it is designed as such.

DOWN HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. While this isn't really a novel that suffers when 'spoiled,' it's worth warning anyway. If you want my one-paragraph recommendation, jump to the end!



The hows of Watchman's drastic reversal of characterization should be plenty familiar by now: Atticus is not the hero we thought he was. Atticus is a bigot.

The easiest theme to identify here is disillusionment. Atticus Finch reveals himself to be a racist, and in so doing destroys the pedestal that Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, has placed him on.

While that development is interesting enough, the far more compelling conflict is the one that Harper Lee brings up in her reader. There is, of course, the controversy over the publishing of the novel. There's not a whole lot I can add to that -- plenty has been written about some of the creepy stuff coming from Lee's lawyer and publishers -- and I was absolutely cognizant of that while reading. Discomfort all around.

But there's a deeper layer of connection with her readers, which plays directly on Lee's characterization of Atticus. In breaking him before our eyes, Lee is telling us directly that we need to grow our sense of morality beyond a small town lawyer showing the most basic amount of humanity to a black man.

The official story, of course, is that Go Set a Watchman was written first and included several flashbacks to Scout's childhood. When Watchman was rejected, a publisher suggested she turn those flashbacks into a standalone novel, which became Mockingbird. I don't doubt the truth of that, but the implication has always been that this version of Watchman is essentially the original one Lee wrote, with the bits that went into Mockingbird excised.

That is the part I tend to doubt.

It's unlikely we'll ever know for certain, but Watchman certainly feels aware of its own place in history. While Scout's disappointment in Atticus fuels her growth as a character, it's hard not to read between the lines and see Lee trying to grow her readers in the same way.

This is all dependent, of course, in how much of Watchman you believe was written or modified after the publication of Mockingbird. My guess: a nontrivial portion of it. But your interpretation may differ. One thing is inarguable, however. Even if Harper Lee didn't mean to challenge our understanding of Mockingbird, she absolutely means to challenge our understanding of morality.

The Ziggurat of Morality

The crux of Watchman, as I see it, is that while believing the right thing for the wrong reasons may be better than doing the wrong thing, it can still lead to disastrous consequences in the long run. After finishing the novel, I thought of nothing so much as psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development.

At the end of Watchman, Jean Louise learns her father is actually proud that she disagrees with his bigotry. Which doesn't mean he's going to consider being less bigoted, of course -- only that he seems to recognize that he's on the wrong side of the ethical line, but is going to stick to his guns anyway.

How does this relate to Kohlberg? Quoting Harvard's phrasing of the first moral stage:
Stage 1: Egocentric deference to superior power or prestige
This is essentially Scout's status at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. She worships Atticus. His actions in defending Tom Robinson are seen as moral and heroic, but mostly because he says they are. The novel draws significant attention to Atticus shaping young Scout's morality, but it should be noted that, according to Kohlberg, this is the lowest level of morality. It is based on a logical fallacy, and can be exceedingly dangerous if the 'superior power' is himself an immoral person (or an immoral text, *cough cough*). It should also be noted that Jean Louise's friend Henry seems permanently stuck in this phase. He's mostly not a bad guy, but that's because he's modeled himself after Atticus. Everything he does is to fit in, and at the end of the book, we can see that he worships the man even more than his daughter did.

But where do Atticus's morals come from? It's easy to see in the subtext of To Kill a Mockingbird (this article has some good sources for this), but Watchman makes it explicit: Atticus's morality comes from the law. Which is not a horrible place to derive morality. Heck, it's number 5 on Kohlberg's list:

Stage 5: Contractual/legalistic orientation

  • Norms of right and wrong are defined in terms of laws or institutionalized rules which seem to have a rational basis.
  • When conflict arises between individual needs and law or contract, though sympathetic to the former, the individual believes the latter must prevail because of its greater functional rationality for society, the majority will and welfare.
This is Atticus to a T. He is a hyper-rational, stoic defender of the law. While this is laudable in a sense -- especially when contrasted with people who let their biases outweigh what's legal -- it's easy to see how this can go wrong. Atticus, when employing this way of thinking, lacks any sense of empathy. He is Antonin Scalia. While he'll certainly defend a black man accused of rape, because the law says that every man deserves a defense, he has no problem supporting Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan. Laws, by definition, can't be unjust. Because they are the law.

While this is a higher state of reasoning than Stage 1, it's still not the top of Kohlberg's pyramid. The top stage is "individual principles of conscience." If that doesn't sound familiar, perhaps you haven't read the quote on the back of the book beating the theme of the story into your head:


This comes from Scout's Uncle Jack, in reference to Scout's rejection of her father's philosophy. It doesn't get much clearer of that. Atticus has been superseded in Jean Louise's mind by her own watchman, her own conscience.

It may be time for the rest of us to follow her lead.

Controversy aside, how is the rest of it?

Well ... it's not terrible. I realize that may be a presumptuous thing to say about Harper Lee, one of my favorite authors (though given the story's warning against hero worship, perhaps she'd be proud of me). But considered as a standalone story, divorced from the context of its author and her previous work, it feels ... sort of flat.

Lee devotes much of the book to describing Maycomb, Alabama and the South in general, but as a transplanted Southerner with a not-so-cheery view of the states below the Mason-Dixon line, it was hard for me, personally, to be all that engaged by the rosy hue Lee uses to paint setting. Or by Scout's presumed decision at the end of the novel to stay and make Maycomb the place she imagined it was -- it's a decision I can respect, but I still feel like it portrays the region's bitter hatred in far too much of an 'aw shucks!' way.

And until the last quarter of the book, when Scout's conflict with her father presents itself, there's nothing driving the plot. Sure, she's a little bit nostalgic for her home, and there's a hint of strife between Scout and her suitor, Henry. But it's clear from early on that she's never going to marry the guy, and most of her hemming and hawing is simply trying to identify why she feels that way.

Henry's story connects nicely with Atticus's, and is ultimately satisfying. But it doesn't make his pleading and pestering for Scout's hand any less of a slog.

But is it worth reading? Well, yes. It's an enjoyable enough read, it adds unneeded but not unwelcome context to Mockingbird, and it does play with some interesting themes. If you're okay with the Atticus twist, you should pick it up! If you're not ... well, you should definitely pick it up. If you're one of those people who based their morals on Atticus Finch, who became a lawyer because of a fictional character and whose foundations would be shaken upon seeing him in a new light, you're the exact person this novel is speaking to.

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