Whenever a teacher forces you to do something in a lesson, you approach it with suspicion. Why would they make you do it, other than if they thought you wouldn’t want to do it in the first place? I remember being told that my GCSE English class would be reading To Kill A Mockingbird ahead of our exams- the only group in my year to be doing so, with Of Mice And Men and Lord Of The Flies being delegated to other groups. Warning signs were evident from the get go, and rumours flew along the tables of the grueling task that awaited us. Then of course I read it, and it turns out I need not have worried.
Saying To Kill A Mockingbird helped me to rediscover my love of reading might sound like some overused hyperbole, but its reputation shows that my opinion is not a lone voice. It wasn’t just the colourful cast of characters that entertained, inspired and intrigued in equal measure, with the mystery of Boo Radley still pervaded ominously throughout Tom Robinson’s trial. Nor was it just how vivid the setting was bought to life, acting as a key factor for particular scenes (such as the jail house) rather than just a backdrop. It was the message of peace, tolerance and acceptance that permeated each page and helped me to fully appreciate the power of literature. Understandably, it has bought its author Harper Lee acclaim and praise of the highest order- all of which has been somewhat tarnished with the release of its follow up, Go Set A Watchman.
But is it really a sequel? Maybe an appendix would be a more appropriate title, given how many have described it as a series of anecdotes and ideas bound together. This is just one of numerous concerns I have regarding the novel’s publication, fifty five years after the original book. Why has it taken all this time, considering she has consistently vowed never to write another book, and that this new book is based on a manuscript that was previously rejected? These questions were enough for me to distance myself from it, and I didn’t think anything of it until some further details emerged regarding one of the book’s central characters.
Atticus Finch is arguably one of the best characters in literature. A beam of positive spirit, greeting everyone with a gentle smile regardless of their background, his direction in life was always towards what was right- not just for his family, but society in general. In To Kill A Mockingbird, he is gentle but firm, calm yet decisive; peaceful, yet commanding a sense of respect and understanding. His attitude wasn’t just demonstrating how we should act; it was demonstrating why we should act in this way. Given the character’s legacy, it was all the more shocking to hear of his transformation in Go Set A Watchmen, where an elderly stubborn Atticus now shares views that are more in line with some of his fellow citizens in the original novel; in other words, a racist.
Now, authors, musicians, filmmakers, anyone creative for that matter, can create a stone cold classic and then stumble on the follow up; hence why “the difficult second album” has become such a common expression among bands. However, this is usually not such a problematic issue because it usually concerns an entirely different piece of work; the acclaimed status of the previous piece remains. Yet here, a classic character of literature has been twisted and warped into a shadow of what he once was. Even his original incarnation is harder to aspire to when you have the full picture in mind.
Thankfully, I see a way out of this, where I can avoid the new incarnation of Atticus Finch from ruining my perception of the character from the original novel. It may not be a popular path of action, and one that I would usually scorn as hopeless and narrow minded, but there are always exceptions to rules. So what is my master stroke? Not reading it altogether. Avoiding the backlash online might be a bit trickier, but if I consciously choose to feign ignorance, my original memories will not be affected; or in any case, the least amount of damage will be done.
Granted, I may be running away from the issue rather than resolving it altogether, and above all Go Set A Watchman may present a series of events more akin to reality; a collection of hard truths that some hastily brush under the carpet when in the public view. I certainly can’t just shrug my shoulders and bemoan “Oh, it’s just a book.” By that same logic, none of the themes present within To Kill A Mockingbird would matter- and though some of the frantic scribbles of analysis may have been instigated by my teachers, the messages still seem clear as ever now.
Personally, I would like to continue to aspire to a figure that champions racial equality and therefore equality in general, so I am determined that my own perception of Atticus Finch will remain as it has been for so many years. It is not as if he is a real person that has suffered a fall from grace; as a character, each reader’s perception of Atticus Finch is a result of their own individual interpretation of him, regardless of how many may share it, and it exists firmly in our imaginations. I was forced to read To Kill A Mockingbird and its impact has yet to fade. Now, with my own choice in the matter, Go Set A Watchman has no place in my mind.