Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird stands as a touchstone of heroism in the face of bigotry and injustice in the United States’ Depression-era Deep South. Atticus Finch, the lawyer who risks his and his family’s safety in his defence of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman, has been idolised by readers since the novel’s publication in 1960, but by no-one more so than his own daughter Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout’ – in whose 6-year-old eyes he could do no wrong.
“Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise,” her uncle counsels the now 26-year-old in Go Set a Watchman. “They must never descend to human level.” Mockingbird is a classic coming-of-age story, but Scout’s education in that book has nothing on that she undergoes in Lee’s much-anticipated ‘sequel’. Having returned to Maycomb, Alabama 20 years after Robinson’s trial, she’s shaken to the very core to learn that her beloved and revered father, who once proffered the mantra “equal rights for all, special privileges for none”, is reading pamphlets entitled The Black Plague and espousing bigoted pro-segregation propaganda at citizens’ council meetings.
Watchman is a book with baggage that it’ll never be able to offload
Jean Louise, “color blind” since birth, is both understandably outraged and deeply wounded by what amounts to a complete loss of faith in the one person “she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted.” Since Atticus holds a similar position in the hearts and minds of so many readers, it’s unsurprising that this revelation has met with early criticism, but this deserves to be tempered by a reminder that there’s a paternalism in Atticus’ behavior in Mockingbird that doesn’t exactly scream civil rights activist. Looking back, perhaps this isn’t quite the shocking volte-face it’s being decried as.
Not, of course, that it needs defending if it is. This sort of comparison is equal parts inevitable and frustratingly pointless. Watchman is a book with baggage that it’ll never be able to offload. Readers can diligently comb Mockingbird for traces of the origins of Atticus’ racism – the sympathy he expresses towards Mrs Dubose, the Finches’ neighbour who has no reservations about voicing her own racism; or the fact that he didn’t exactly go out on a limb for Robinson from the start (he was allocated the case) – or they can allow themselves to be convinced by his brother’s account of the complexities inherent in a white Southerner’s personal and political identity, and what they regard as fear-mongering by the NAACP in these, the early days of the civil rights movement.
But given the backwards chronology of the novels’ genesis and publication – Watchman was written first but initially rejected by Lee’s publisher in 1957, who encouraged the author to turn her attention to an account of her protagonist’s childhood – ultimately it’s a moot point: these two Atticus Finches exist in parallel universes. As much as we might prefer Mockingbird’s (relatively – he’s already in his ’50s) youthful and fearless moral compass, Watchman’s fallen hero is the more interesting version. His flaws suggest a complex man of fallible flesh and bone (it’s worth noting he’s also physically crippled with rheumatoid arthritis – an easy but powerful metaphor for his moral weakness) rather than a flawless hero.
This doesn’t mean that Watchman is a better book. It lacks the drama of Mockingbird’s famous set pieces, relies a little too heavily on overly lengthy lectures about race and politics, and simply doesn’t invite the same love for its characters (despite our familiarity with most of them). Lee’s editors made the right call when they suggested she abandon this first draft and turn her attention to Scout’s childhood. Despite being written in the less immediate and inviting third person, there are flashbacks to this time aplenty in Watchman, enough to convince that it’s here that the real story lies, especially when told through the innocent eyes of a child. This, of course, is precisely where the genius of Mockingbird lies; it teaches the injustices of racial inequality through the prism of a different set of black-and-white absolutes: a child’s clear-cut sense of right and wrong, fairness and unfairness.
Fans of Mockingbird understandably want to know how saintly Atticus Finch, paragon of integrity and justness, turned into a cantankerous old bigot; but surely the more interesting question is how Lee transformed a character she initially envisaged as a cantankerous old bigot into a paragon of integrity and justness. In many ways it comes down to the different social and political eras in which the two stories are set. Despite the tranquility we see on the surface of small town life, Mockingbird depicts a time of cruel injustices and a world where everybody knows their place – Robinson, remember, is not guilty of willful ingress, he is the passive victim of circumstance and cruel fate. The world of Watchman, by comparison, is one of tumultuous social change, unsettling in part because the likes of the NAACP are actively encouraging black Americans to ask for and expect more. We saw the power of mob rule during the angry lynch mob scene in Mockingbird, the only difference now is that this time it’s Atticus himself who’s been swayed.
Watchman’s fallen hero is the more interesting version
“Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?” Jean Louise’s uncle asks her, attempting to explain her father’s situation. The fact that he focuses on the circumstances of men here is important: Watchman quietly considers the difference between the sexes through its juxtaposition of the views of father and daughter. Where much of the dramatic tension of Mockingbird is to be found in the courtroom, here a similar battle of intellect and argument is waged in the privacy of the Finches’ own home. Jean Louise attacks Atticus for his abhorrent politics behind closed doors, rather than on a public stage for all the town to see. Although many will feel betrayed by Atticus’ transformation, on the flip-side, it’s heartening to know that Scout has negotiated the rocky road from “howling tomboy into a grown woman” and emerged just as spirited and open-minded as she was as a child. She’s a woman who wants to be more than a Southern belle, “churched to death, bridge-partied to death”. She has opinions and she isn’t afraid to make herself heard.
Whether feelings of disillusionment with Atticus or Watchman’s technical flaws will tarnish the prowess of Mockingbird, only time will tell. Separating the two novels intellectually is easily done; but to invest in this emotionally is a harder task. But while Mockingbird undoubtedly remains the literary superstar, as Atticus remains its hero, Watchman presents a more nuanced study of racial prejudice. In light of recent tensions in America – despite the passing of what we often assume is 60-odd years of progress – this is perhaps a more timely and important portrait than we would like to admit.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.