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.

(Classic) Review: “Herland,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Life is a stuggle, has to be,” he insisted. “If there is no struggle, there is no life–that’s all.”

Utopian fiction is a tricky business. It’s generally a misnomer at best. Utopian fiction often falls into one of three categories: Utopia that turns out to be the utter opposite of paradise for some, if not all, of the inhabitants (dystopia); Utopia that turns out to be flawed in one way or another; or, a utopia that actually is heaven on Earth. The first two types of stories are generally more interesting. The third, unfortunately, is where Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland falls.

That’s not to say there’s not some very interesting ideas here. Herland was written near the beginning of the 20th Century, and many of Gilman’s thoughts are ahead of her time. The main problem, however, lies in Gilman’s choice of outlet. What may have been better suited for an essay is instead formulated as a sort of adventure novel that never quite gives us an adventure.

Herland revolves around a simple premise. Somewhere in the unexplored jungle lies a pristine, modern paradise populated solely by women. A group of intrepid (not really) explorers stumble upon what they call Herland, and the inhabitants teach them their history, their culture and their way of life. That’s it. There are relatively few twists (the men try to escape at one point, fail, and are brought back). The ending isn’t too unexpected. It’s really more of a what-if essay than a fleshed out story.

In a somewhat interesting choice for feminist literature, Gilman uses male protagonists to filter the reader’s view of the issues at hand. Our viewpoint character is Van Jennings, a sort of middle-of-the-road kind of guy who can see both sides of any argument. This makes for a kind of boring and timid “hero” (if you can call him that, which, now that I think about it, no, no you can’t), but I can see why Gilman chose him. The reader is not really asked to follow along for any sweeping judgments. Instead, we identify with Van as he observes the other two male characters: Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave.

Terry is, to put it bluntly, an ass. He holds the traditional turn-of-the-century views of women, but escalated to sometimes comical levels. To Terry, women are silly little things with no real intelligence or capability, obviously the inferior sex, and only really necessary as a motivation for men. One of the best examples of his character: to him, the existence of Herland is less of a scientific impossibility than a social one. He argues against the concept of female-only reproduction (which, in one of the most speculative aspects of the story, is identified as parthenogenesis). But to him, the craziest part of this country is the idea of women living amongst themselves with no men to run the town, grow the crops, maintain and invent the technology and stop all that silly female bickering.

If Terry is the resident misogynist, Jeff resides squarely in the opposite side of crazy. He represents the pro-feminist camp, which is generally cool, but sometimes creepily approaches putting women on a pedastal (something, it should be mentioned, Terry does as well, but in more of a “women are so frail, they shouldn’t do work” kind of way). I’m not sure if this is intentional on Gilman’s part, or if Jeff is supposed to be a positive character and our modern ideas of feminism have just changed in the past 100 years. However, given the fact that Jeff is not our central character, I’d like to believe the former.

Jeff and Terry frequently spar over the roles of women in society, while Van watches on, giving us the novel’s only real conflict. Unfortunately, this conflict becomes repetitive almost immediately. The woman claim they have accomplished some spectacular achievement, Terry says no, that’s impossible because woman are stupid and silly, Jeff says nuh-uh cause women are awesome! All while Van nods his head and jots it all down in his mental notebook.

My other criticism, beyond the lack of a real plot, is that Gilman’s female characters all sort of run together. A strange thought, isn’t it? In a book about the exceptionalism of women, the women become exceptionally stale and boring. There’s really no difference in any of them. They’re all incredibly smart, capable, confident in themselves and their culture. The three women who end up getting paired off with the males (Ellador, Celis and Alima) seem different in temperament, but that’s only because they are given different situations to react to  (Alima, who gets to deal with Terry, is obviously going to behave differently than Celis, who gets Jeff).

So what’s to like about Herland? Gilman’s subtle references to feminist thinking of the time. In one of my favorite passages of the book, one of the women brings up the concept of being trapped in one’s own home and life:

“It’s not the same thing at all,” [Terry] insisted. “A man wants a home of his own, with his wife and family in it.”

“Staying in it? All the time?” asked Ellador. “Not imprisoned, surely!”

“Of course not! Living there–nautrally,” he answered.

The point being how silly it is to consider a woman’s confinement in her home “natural.” This is very likely a reference to Gilman’s own The Yellow Wallpaper (a speculative-ish feminist story surrounding a woman’s depression and confinement. It’s absolutely fantastic). It is also oddly similar to Virginia Woolf’s then-unwritten A Room of One’s Own, though exploring the idea of living quarters in opposite directions.

It is moments like these that made me sit up and evaluate Gilman’s work in the greater pantheon of feminist literature. To my disappointment, there were exceedingly few moments that made me sit up and consider her work in the realm of adventure or speculative fiction. Maybe this isn’t so bad. I’m sure Gilman was more concerned about her feminist themes than whether or not her work could be adapted into a Syfy Original Movie. But if one were to read, say, a feminist western, one would hope that the work had something to add to both of those genres.

The most relevant passage in the book seems to be the one I quoted at the beginning of this post. Terry asserts that life must be filled with struggles to be worthwhile, and the women inform him that, no, living in a perfect world is perfectly satisfactory. In my interpretation, Gilman is speaking directly to the reader at this point. It seems evident that she knew that her story was more about the themes and ideas than any sort of character development. And she seems okay with that. I guess, in the end, that’s all we can hope from an author — that everything they do is done with full knowledge and purpose.

For fans of feminist literature, Herland is sort of a must-read. In fact, I’d assume most fans of feminist literature have already read it. That’s like saying “If you’re a fan of fantasy, you simply must read this Tolkien fellow!” But, as it is a very early example of utopian/futurist fiction, it may be of interest to specfic fans. And if that’s your sole interest, you may want to skip Herland. It doesn’t go much further than its synopsis. Instead, for feminist science fiction, go for any of Margaret Atwood’s books (ignore her unfortunate views on science fiction), or the aforementioned work, Gilman’s seminal The Yellow Wallpaper.

Herland can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.

(Classic) Review: “A Princess of Mars,” by Edgar Rice Burroughs

So this was love! I had escaped it for all the years I had roamed the five continents and their encircling seas; in spite of beautiful women and urging opportunity; in spite of a half- desire for love and a constant search for my ideal, it had remained for me to fall furiously and hopelessly in love with a creature from another world…”

Ask anyone about Edgar Rice Burroughs, and one word will come to mind: Tarzan. Among all his works, Tarzan alone has become an integral part of our popular culture, to the point that any civilized-feral culture shock story will draw comparisons to the seminal character. However, in terms of literary influence, another one of Burroughs’s works may be even more important. His John Carter of Mars (or Barsoom, in the Martian native tongue) series serves as one of the earliest examples of a space opera*, featuring a faraway planet, strange creatures, a passionate romance, and, of course, martial combat.

The first novel in the series, A Princess of Mars, first introduces us to John Carter, a confederate soldier who is inexplicably transported to Mars. Once there, he finds out that the society is nearly barren of resources, and as such, has reverted in large part from an advanced, intelligent society to a number of barbaric, warring tribes. John jumps from tribe to tribe, learning their customs and befriending their natives, before finally setting off on a mission to save the entire planet from destruction. On the way, he meets the titular Princess (who unlike the four-armed insectoid Green Martians, is completely humanoid), and falls head over heels (as you can see in the quote above). One of the book’s weak points is its poor handling of female characters (something that, unfortunately, carried through to a lot of the science fiction genre). The Princess, Dejah Thoris, has little to no agency, and serves only as a damsel-in-distress, and, to a lesser extent, a source of exposition and explanation for John. The other main female character, a Green Martian, at least has a story and motivations, but is also placed in the story to spur a male character to action (in this case, Tars Tarkas, a Green Martian that John befriends).

APoM was released nearly a century ago, in 1912. The age of the book alone is dizzying, as many of the aspects of the story are considered genre tropes, though these are admittedly borrowed from older genres such as romances and westerns. The fact that “Princess” is getting a big budget film adaptation soon is ample evidence of this; it’s unlikely that they’ll even have to change a great deal of the plot. The only places that the book truly shows its age is in some of the antiquated phrasing, and the aforementioned outdated thinking (at one point, Carter comments that the princess’s naiveté is “good, feminine logic”).

That said, the book has some technical issues that even age doesn’t completely justify. This is understandable. A Princess of Mars was Burroughs’ first full novel (though the first Tarzan novel was published at the same time, I believe what would eventually become A Princess of Mars was written first), and some of the amateur mistakes shine through. The most glaring problem, in my opinion, is Burroughs’s ham-fisted use of foreshadowing — but foreshadowing is the wrong word. Fore-outright-telling-you-what-is-going-to-happen is the closest I can come to describing the issue. At one point, John Carter meets a ferocious Martian “dog” who attacks him, and comments, before even resolving the attack, that the dog would one day become his close companion and risk his live to save Carter. This occurs often in the early stages of the novel, when the characters are being introduced, and it gets old quickly.

The first Barsoom novel is probably not one that is going to keep a modern reader on the edge of his or her seat from cover to cover. It lags in places, and many events tend to be quite similar. For example, Carter first arrives at a tribe of barbarians and is forced to adapt and fight his way into their good graces. Later, he falls in with another tribe, and goes through the exact same process with a slightly different outcome. These issues are worth the read for Science Fiction literature fans, however, to experience such a significant piece of the genre’s history. At the very least, the next time you watch a science-fiction show or film you’ll be able to roll your eyes and say “ERB did that 100 years ago.”

Download A Princess of Mars for free at Project Gutenberg

*Technically, according to the experts at Wikipedia, the Barsoom novels are classified as “Planetary Romance,” not “Space Opera.” The distinction is mostly academic — the Barsoom novels certainly inspired later space operas, such like Star Wars.