‘Go Set a Watchman’ shows America just how far it hasn’t come
Harper Lee’s newly released Go Set A Watchman, which was written before To Kill A Mockingbird, but takes place after, is many things. It’s at once a sequel and a prequel, in which we see both the narrative roots and the temporal ageing of beloved characters — most importantly, Atticus and Scout Finch. It’s a story about the crushing realization that parents are humans, with flaws and prejudices that mortify and disgust the ones who love them most. It’s a partial answer to the question generations of readers have asked since Mockingbird was released in 1960: what kind of a woman would Scout grow up to be? And it is, like Mockingbird, a critique of Southern white womanhood and the ways in which it oppresses and constrains all but the lucky and stubborn few — and sometimes even them.
Released not even a month after a white supremacist entered a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and declared, before opening fire and killing nine black people, “You rape our women,” Go Set A Watchman is also remarkably — depressingly — timely.
When Dylann Roof’s words were reported, my mind flew to the fictional Maycomb, Alabama, where Scout Finch grows up, and where, in Mockingbird, she watches as her father tries and fails to defend a black man who is framed and sentenced for the rape of a white woman. The woman in question, Mayella Ewell, has led a life of poverty and sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and she’s to be pitied, Atticus tells the jury in his closing arguments. But not to the extent of killing an innocent man, Tom Robinson, to protect her reputation. “I’m in favor of Southern womanhood as much as anybody,” Atticus has told his sister, “but not for preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life.”
The polite fiction is that white women feel no sexual desire toward black men, and that white men never molest their daughters. That proper women in Maycomb are, in the words of the anti-segregation speaker who addresses the local Citizen’s Council meeting in Watchman, “fresh white Southern virgins” in need of protection — violent protection, if need be — from black men by white men. In the antebellum South, during Reconstruction, and under Jim Crow, the polite fiction was used to justify the murder of black men and the terrorizing of black communities. It was believed by white men, and deployed by white women: at the end of the rape trial in Mockingbird, Scout realizes that “Tom Robinson was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.”
As Jessie Daniels of Racism Review points out, in discussing the police killing of Jonathan Ferrell, a black man who in 2013 crashed his car and approached a white woman for help, this overreaction in the name of white womanhood is not a thing of the past. And as Dylann Roof demonstrated in Charleston, the myth that white women must be defended from black men lives on, with deadly consequences.
Watchman takes place less than two decades after the trial of Tom Robinson; Scout is 26, and has moved away to New York City. Back in Maycomb on an annual visit, she rebels, as she always has, against the strictures of Southern womanhood. As a child, she’s a tomboy, and Maycomb’s adult women continually criticize her unfeminine ways. When she hits puberty, she laments that she must now “go into the world of femininity, a world she despise[s].” As an adult, she still chafes against the constraints of white Southern womanhood, inwardly mocking and pitying the women who have stayed in Maycomb: “the Newlyweds,” “the Diaper Set,” “the Light Brigade” — who can only talk about weight loss — and the still-single “Perennial Hopefuls.”
It’s in the scene where we meet all these women that we’re reminded that white women were just as capable of racism as white men, as they mock their maids and hope aloud that a black man will be tried for murder rather than manslaughter, in the interests of a more “exciting” trial. In Watchman, Southern womanhood is constraining, boring, and venal. In Mockingbird, Southern womanhood is deadly.
At the end of Watchman, Scout has discovered that even her saintly father — a moral compass of Maycomb and for generations of American readers — is not immune to racism, “Maycomb’s usual disease,” and that perhaps he never was. She has realized that it is hard to muster the exit velocity required to truly leave your hometown and to wholly throw off the prejudices — racism, sexism, classism — that you learned there. It might even be impossible.
It’s a message of despair, not of hope; one that Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose already-influential book Between The World and Me was also released this week, would recognize. And though it was penned long ago, it remains strikingly timely. The sexism that constrained the women of Maycomb lives on — in the South and everywhere else. So does the racism that turned their model of womanhood into a deadly weapon. Not just in the hateful corners of the Internet where white nationalism festers and infects men like Dylann Roof, but out in the sunlight, too. And if Atticus Finch isn’t immune, then none of us is.