Home » Culture » Go Set a Watchman has a lesson more valuable than Mockingbird. Here's why.

Go Set a Watchman has a lesson more valuable than Mockingbird. Here's why.

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 24 July 2015, 2:06 IST

Two million copies of the Mockingbird prequel reached bookstores in the days before its release. Amazon registered the highest number of preorders since Harry Potter. Essentially, this book was a bestseller the day it was announced.

It's been just over a week of reviews and hectic debate - and a lot of fascinating ground has been covered. But what much of the pre-release fanfare, hype, debate, expectations and reviews has done is deal with the book's admittedly momentous context rather than its unique voice.

Because there is, certainly, a unique voice.

Go Set a Watchman is an unedited book. There is, therefore, little point arguing its relative unsophistication as a work of literature. There are, indeed, lumpy moments in the narrative - an inevitable consequence of not having it sharpened at the hands of a skilled editor. In many ways, it reads like Catcher in the Rye. All its meaningful revelations are squeezed into the last chapter.

But Go Set a Watchman tells a far more relatable, and therein important, story than Mockingbird. Where Mockingbird is about being raised by a great man and the invaluable lessons that that come with it, Go Set a Watchman is simply about becoming a person. Yourself.

Scout, now in her mid-twenties, comes home to small-town Alabama from New York to find that her father is a white supremacist. She finds racist propaganda leaflets in his study, then spies on him at a community meeting. Her Atticus - the revered idealistic father, lawyer and citizen, is now an unapologetic proponent of segregation.

If Mockingbird offers valuable context, it is in establishing how far her God has now fallen. She is shaken, betrayed, literally sick with grief. For days she recedes into a bubble of self-pity and horror, memories of her extraordinary childhood marred overnight by her father's politics.

She emerges, eventually, to confront Atticus - and in that confrontation discovers what many of us, at some point in our lives, discover. That we may not necessarily share a conscience with those we love.

Scout discovers something we all do at some point: we may not share a conscience with those we love

It's a disruptive thought, potentially a deeply disturbing one, but it's one every person growing into their own identity needs to come to terms with.

You could be gay with homophobic parents. You could be a feminist with a strongly patriarchal heritage. You could be an AAP supporter in an RSS household.

Atticus doesn't deny his position - his isn't an insidious belief. Instead, he appeals to Scout's rationale, spouting what we now know and call out as Southern supremacist propaganda.

And our belligerent, fumbling, socially-inept heroine is horrified. "You son of a bitch!" she screams, before packing her bags and vowing never to return to Maycomb again. That's when Uncle Jack tells her:

"Every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious."

Our thoughts and beliefs are our own. They may be influenced by - but cannot be attributed to - those who raise us. We do not share our moral codes with anyone but ourselves. And we cannot expect that those who love us will align with our beliefs.

Taking full ownership of our beliefs is step one in accommodating ideas that we may never agree with. That it is possible to co-exist with those whose beliefs may collide with our own.

Step two, of course, is understanding that it is always ". like an airplane: they're the drag and we're the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we're nose-heavy, too much of them and we're tail-heavy - it's a matter of balance."

If progress must be reasonable and meaningful, it must be hard-fought. If we embrace this, we understand that even those we label regressive play an important role in the progress they seem to impede. The lesbian and the homophobe, the colour-blind and the white supremacist - they're the necessary ying and yang of change.

In Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee makes the best possible case to love those who do not think like us

It's comforting, and natural, to surround ourselves with people who think like us. Move to cities where we're free to dress the way we do, browse websites that reflect our brand of feminism and follow on Twitter those who will reaffirm and reflect our beliefs.

But Go Set a Watchman makes the best possible case to confront and even love those who do not think like us. If in Mockingbird there are stark blacks and whites (a loaded pun if ever there was one), rights and wrongs, virtues and criminals, Watchman allows softer, kinder greys. If Mockingbird is the better written of the two, Watchman is the more reflective.

Go Set a Watchman is the essential guide we may all need to loving a parent or an old friend who we believe has been left behind in the society's constantly-evolving moral compass.

Read Go Set a Watchman. In its own fumbling way, it's no less important a book as Mockingbird, one in which Harper Lee reminds us that sometimes we can't join them and we don't can't beat them - but it is possible to continue to love them.

First published: 24 July 2015, 1:54 IST
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.