Some Thoughts on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the book yet and plan to, and if you’ve also managed to avoid finding out the plot from various reviews and commentary, you may not want to read further. I won’t go into much detail, but I will be dealing with one of the major conflicts in the novel.       gsaw

The last part of the answer to question seven of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “What is God?”, describes him as “…knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness in truth.” For many fans of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, this would also be an apt description of the saintly widower and lawyer, Atticus Finch. One of my former colleagues memorably said that Atticus Finch is responsible for a significant number of never-married English teachers—a real man could never live up to such lofty standards. I’m not sure she was entirely correct about the spinster assertion, but I do agree that Atticus Finch is one of the most hero-worshipped figures in all of modern literature, which is why his more complicated, less than flattering portrayal in the recently released Go Set a Watchman, has sparked such strong, often negative reactions from readers and critics.

Growing up a fan of both the book and the film version To Kill a Mockingbird, I couldn’t not read Go Set a Watchman. I also couldn’t keep myself from reading the reviews, so by the time I was able to borrow the book from my mom, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. My expectations were suitably low, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself easily able to slip back into Harper Lee’s fictional world of Maycomb, Alabama. It felt like catching up with an old friend—years had passed, but we picked up right where we left off.

After finishing the book and having some time to mull it over, what resonated most significantly with me was Atticus’s forced disillusionment of Scout. Even though she is twenty-six years old, living on her own in New York City, and going by the name Jean Louise, she still sees her father through the rose-colored glasses of the child narrator from To Kill a Mockingbird. Like many fans of the first novel, she’s never considered Atticus to be fully human, which necessarily means fallen, broken, and ultimately, disappointing. In order to reconcile herself to the shocking revelation of his imperfection, she must first recognize her mistake in making him her God. Toppling her idol causes her immense pain, but Harper Lee seems to suggest that it’s a necessary part of the process of becoming an adult.

It made me reflect on the people I’ve put on a pedestal in my own life, like parents, teachers, pastors, or even public figures, who’ve inevitably proven disappointing as Gods, because there is only one God who matches the Westminster Catechism’s description. We set ourselves up for heartache when we do this, yet we continue every election cycle and sports season. Lee’s second novel served as a timely and helpful reminder not to put my ultimate trust in man, because I’ll be let down every single time, even by Atticus Finch. Fortunately, that’s not the entire story. The ending of the novel suggests the possibility of reconciliation for Atticus and Scout, which points toward the hope we have through faith in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit as God reconciles us to himself and redeems our own broken relationships in this fallen world.

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