I know. I know.
It has been more than a month since I last posted in this dearest blog of mine. (hang on while I sweep the dust and cobwebs away for you, LOL).
I feel the pain, trust me. One of the goals I set for myself is to write at least weekly because I personally think of writing as my brain exercise. The way I make hiking my favourite weekly physical exercise, I have made writing my weekly brain stimulation. When I don’t write, at the risk of sounding like I am having a nihilistic delusion, I can feel my brain shrinking. *drama queen sangat*
The only reason for my tardiness (because I do have one) is profound exhaustion due to my hectic schedule these days and because I have set other priorities to come first before blogging. I was swamped, to be honest. Inundated by work, housechores, studies and my stubborn determination to finish two literatures at the same time within the time period I have pre-determined for myself. (Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee and Langit Petang by A. Samad Said. Of course when I said literatures, I didn’t mean the scientific journal kind. Hahah. I mean, the novel, fiction kind, of course!).
Usually, when I don’t blog weekly as I am apt to do, it must be because I am busy reading; either reading my academic books (my exam is in October, peeps) or reading my fiction/literature. On top of everything else, I was just recovering from URTI and a severe allergic reaction that made my lips look like I had a botox injection gone wrong! (Oh, the horror of it all!) If anything is guaranteed to spoil your mood to write, it is general ill health.
So, today I am back to write a book review on Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. (I am so sorry. I know some of my readers are med students and some are fellow doctors who prefer that I write about medical life most of the time. But oh Gosh, my first and foremost passion will always be reading. Been doing it all my life. Addicted to it like one can be addicted to heroine. Hopelessly, helplessly powerless against the lure and magic of reading a good story. So occcasionally, that’s what I will write about. Please feel free to skip reading this post, adik-adik. You don’t have to read this really long book review.)
A Background Story of Go Set A Watchman
To those who don’t know Harper Lee, she was the famous, acclaimed writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner of my all-time favourite novel To Kill A Mocking Bird. (Ring a bell, yet?)
To Kill A Mocking Bird has been made a compulsory text in many English classes all over the world (but not in Malaysia, alas). When I first read the book in my teenage years, I had fallen head over heels in love with Atticus Finch, the lawyer who had defended the black man who was wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus Finch was an upstanding, noble-hearted man who had defended, to the best of his ability, a wrongly accused black man and standing up against the racist society of Maycomb, Alabama, with the support of his family, consisting of his tomboyish daughter (6 year old Scout), charming son (9 year old Jem), younger brother (a doctor), and his black maid (named Calpurnia). Atticus Finch was labeled as a nigger-lover (a derogatory term) by his neighbours, and was called as a traitor to the White people just because he wanted to ensure a fair trial for a black man. Throughout the court trial, Scout was bullied at school and was unfairly punished when she fought with other kids to defend his father’s good name. Atticus Finch was depicted as a wise, loving and patient father to his kids as he tried to shield his kids from the repercussions of his work as a defender of a black person, but at the same time he educated his kids about what justice, fairness and kindness were all about. Atticus Finch taught his kids about courage and compassion. He told them that courage is “when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what”.
In short, Atticus Finch is the moral center of the novel. The superego in To Kill A Mocking Bird…. that is Atticus Finch.
And if you belong to any book forum discussing To Kill A Mocking Bird, you will find many women readers all over the world had placed Atticus Finch as their benchmark of what a good man should aspire to be.
Sometimes, I even speculated that the reason Harper Lee never married was because in real life, she couldn’t find someone like Atticus Finch, the hero that she had created so many decades ago.
Harper Lee was said to be the ‘Jane Austen of Alabama’ and Jane Austen also never married. In fact, many great novelists I know didn’t get married. Harper Lee, Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma and all her other great works and I have read them all), Anne Bronte (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcot (Little Women)…. they never married.
Charlotte Bronte (author of Jane, Eyre, The Professor and Villete) finally got married at the age of 37, but she died only one year into her marriage. Only one year, folks! Makes one thinks that marriage is simply not compatible to the nature of a writer, huh? When they got married, they died SOON after. LOL.
Another way to look at it is, what if being single gave some famous writers the freedom they needed to go on a writing binge without having to think of someone else? Maybe not having to face marital issues, make these women the great writers that they were. Maybe the solitude and peace that they got from spinsterhood inspired stories that are evergreen and stand the test of time?
“So, you are saying that the reason you are still unmarried is because you are like Jane Austen… like Anne Bronte?” my sister rolled her eyes.
“Pandai pun. You got the point.” I laughed.
“Perasan!” Hahhaha. Me and my sisters do goof around about writing a lot! Sometimes we do a lot of basket lifting (Read:angkat bakul, haha) about our writing abilities. Of course, I am NOWHERE in the league of Jane Austen. NEVER! But it doesn’t hurt to dream, right? *goofy grin*
But jokes aside, I believe that most writers are very idealistic. And the real world cannot meet that idealism. And they’d much rather enjoy their peace and solitude than being shackled and trapped with anything less than their ideals.
And in the minds of many readers, Atticus Finch is the ideal!
Harper Lee had published To Kill A Mocking Bird in 1960. Then, she didn’t publish any other novel for a very long time (almost for the rest of her life) until she FINALLY came up with Go Set A Watchman in 2015. She then died on the 19th of February 2016 at the age of 89, only one year after the publication of her second novel. So, for most of her life, she was an author of only ONE novel… but what an awesome novel it was! And only one year before her death did Go Set A Watchman get published, which was considered as a sequel to To Kill A Mocking Bird.
According to an article that I read, Go Set A Watchman was actually her first novel; her first draft which she sent in the 1960s. It was rejected by the editor. Instead, the editor had suggested that Harper Lee revise the plot to focus more on the childhood experience of Scout and Jem while Atticus Finch was handling the controversial trial… and so Harper Lee then followed the editors’ advice, and the rest is history; To Kill A Mocking Bird was born!
So, I advise that readers should read To Kill A Mocking Bird first. Otherwise, you might not enjoy Go Set A Watchman as much. You wouldn’t be able to understand what makes Go Set A Watchman is as good as To Kill A Mocking Bird if you don’t get the context of how great Atticus Finch was in the first novel.
Because in Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch was no longer as idealistic as he used to be. One might even say that Atticus Finch had become a racists in Go Set A Watchman, albeit, with his own reason for being one. I felt like I was reading about a different Atticus Finch, at first. But at the end of the novel, I understood why Atticus Finch did what he did and said what he said.
When you read To Kill A Mocking Bird, you love Atticus Finch in the way a child loves her parent. An immature child has the purest of love towards her parent; ‘my father is so great, he can do no wrong in any situation’ kind of pure, undivided love. But when the child grows up, goes on in life to see the world, she will start noticing that her parent is not as flawless as she once believed when she was just a kid, and so the now grown-up child has to readjust.
To me, Go Set A Watchman is THAT readjustment. Scout was readjusting her opinion of Atticus Finch and found that she could not agree with her father this time, that her father was not as perfect as per her childhood memory, but after much argumentation, screaming and tearing-up, she still loved him anyway.
In my opinion, To Kill A Mocking Bird is Atticus story (even if it was told from the perspective of a 6 years old Scout), and Go Set A Watchman is Scout’s Story!
And I love them both!
A summary of the novel (copied from Goodreads):
Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”) returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can be guided only by one’s conscience. Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision–a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.
My literary analysis of this novel:
The setting of the novel is around the time when the blacks were fighting for non-segregation between whites and blacks in America. In this novel, the court had just ruled that in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, it was unconstitutional to establish separate public schools for black and white students. In conjunction with this court decision, black students now deserved to go to the same public schools as white students. This court decision together with the tension caused by the activities of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) had raised racial discord and controversies among the races in Maycomb Alabama.
By principle, Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout) supported for non-segregation and equal rights between the races. When she returned home for a holiday in Maycomb, she was surprised when she learned that her neighbours and the Maycomb community did not share her sentiment. But she was even more devastated when she found out that even her own beloved father Atticus Finch and her own sweetheart, Henry, were against non-segregation. She felt betrayed when Atticus, who had taught her about justice in her childhood, had now turned out to be a ‘secretive racist’. She broke up with Henry because she found out that Henry did not have the same worldview as she does and that she “could never live with hypocrites”. Scout believed that the two men in her life did not possess the same integrity as she did in this issue and it hurt her tremendously.
Later, we found out that Atticus was not against non-segregation per se. He just thought that the Black was not ready for it. Examples of the blacks’ non-readiness to get equal rights were being placed casually throughout the book. There was one occasion narrated in the book when Henry mentioned that “the black people in the county now have money for cars but neglect to get licenses and insurance“.
In other words, the black people in the America AT THAT TIME, was not ready for the responsibility of a full citizenship. Atticus believed that citizenship should be earned. That if we allowed the backward blacks an equal vote, then they would run the country to the ground because they would not know how to manage the country. (and in that time setting, blacks were quite backward secondary to their segregation and lack of education; even Scout could not deny it when Atticus pushed the point).
The conversation between Scout and Atticus Finch below would make it clear that Atticus was no racist; he was just not as idealistic as Scout; more practical and more realistic,
Scout said, “….I heard a slogan and it stuck in my head. I heard “equal rights for all; special privileges for none”. And to me it didn’t mean anything but what it said….”
“Let’s look at it this way,” said her father. “You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’, don’t you?”
“You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?”
“But you want them to have all its privileges?”
I think the round above belongs to Atticus. Atticus drove his point here admirably well. Atticus was able to demonstrate that the blacks were unable and not ready to share the full responsibilities of citizenship, so was it then fair that they should have all the privileges that should come with responsibilities that they were not ready for? Here, Scout had stumbled and lost, I feel.
If you read many book reviews and discussions in book forums, many people were frustrated that Atticus was made as a racist in this book. They lamented ‘where is the great Atticus that we so loved?’. But if I were to write an analysis of Atticus’ characteristics, the conversation above would be the evidence I would use to say that Atticus was not a racist. After all, he had defended a black man in a court trial in his younger days, remember?!
Atticus said that he just always thought like Thomas Jefferson (The Founding Father of America and its third President) and he elucidated his point by saying “Jefferson believed that full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly or to be taken lightly. A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man. A vote was, to Jefferson, a precious privilege a man attained for himself in a live-and-let-live economy”.
So you see, things are not as black-and-white anymore. Atticus no longer seemed as racist as he appeared, at first. And Scout was made to look too idealistic, and less practical. And that’s what made this novel Go Set A Watchman so good! You are torn between supporting your ideals absolutely or planting your feet firmly in your flawed reality.
Another scene I love best is the scene between Scout and her ‘almost fiance’ named Henry (who she later broke up with). Scout had said that she was disappointed that Henry (who was also a lawyer working with Atticus) had not shared her worldview about equal rights and non-segregation.
Henry tried to justify his position by telling her that, sometimes there is a need to go with the flow, be like the rest, in order to best serve the community. (Scout thought that Henry was a coward when he said that).
Henry said “How can I be of any use to a town if it’s against me?….. Now, shall I throw all that (my education, reputation) down the drain…. when I could be helping them with what legal talent that I have? Which is worth more?”
This was the moment when Scout broke up with Henry. And personally, I think she did the right thing. Henry had lost her respect from that moment forward and marriage will spell disaster for them both if they continued with the plan.
But I kind of understand why Henry said what he said to Scout. Henry had come from ‘white thrash’; he began as a nobody (until Atticus took him under his wing) and he always had to be careful with what he said or what he did in the community. Whereas Scout had the reputation of a Finch surname that made the community viewed her with more indulgence. Henry told her that “There are some things that I can’t do that you can (because you are a Finch)”.
In a way, Scout was more privileged because she belonged to a reputable family in Maycomb. She could say any outrageous thing she wanted and she could deviate from the societal norms (within reasons) and the members of the community would simply chuckle and say “That’s just same old Scout,”
But if it was Henry saying or doing exactly as Scout said or did, the community would harshly say “That’s the thrash in him.” They would not view what he said or did in the same indulgent way as they did with Scout.
And this is something that Scout had taken for granted. She had her freedom simply because her life circumstances were much more privileged than the rest. So she sat on a high pedestal and could judge Henry as a coward. But what if Scout was also born as a ‘white thrash’? Would she have the means to be as outspoken and as courageous as she did? Maybe not. And that was what Henry was trying to point out to Scout.
Again, this is what I mean when I said there are so many nuances to Go Set A Watchman. More grey; not much black-and-white.
(When I read this part of the scene, it reminded me that this sort of double-standard occurred everywhere. Kalau specialist yang rude dan kurang ajar, they would say “Ala, that surgeon/specialist memang macam tu. Kitalah yang kena adapt”. But if it was a houseman who retaliate and being frank (not even rude, just frank), the houseman will be labeled ‘tak padan dengan houseman, dah kurang ajar, berani nak cakap banyak/tulis macam-macam.’ Hahha. And like Scout, I would not be able to respect Henry. I also would think that Henry was a coward. Hang takut apa orang nak cakap apa pun? Because if you keep on doing what you think is right, one day people will also finally said “ala, dia memang macam tu. Kitalah kena adapt.” Sementara kita nak dapat reputasi tu, memang tadah telingalah kena kutuk. But once you get to a certain level and you always have the reputation of doing what you feel is right, people will finally give you the same acknowledgement…“dia memang macam tu. kita yang kena adapt dengan dia.” But then, maybe I am more privileged and I didn’t realize it? This scene really made me think! It made me think a lot about my expectations of others around me. Maybe it is just not realistic for me to expect that people should be frank and forthright against any unjust authority that they don’t like. Maybe I should not base my respect and trust on whether or not someone is courageous enough to speak their minds. Well…. this scene certainly made me pause and think.)
Now, we come to another good scene that I absolutely adore. This is the scene between Scout and her Uncle Jack who was a retired doctor. This Uncle Jack sounded like a psychiatrist when he told Scout that the reason Scout was so angry at his father was because all these while, Scout had merged her personal conscience with that of Atticus. But now, over this black segregation issue, finally Scout had become her own person and able to separate her own conscience from her father’s conscience. (This scene sort of reminded me of Margaret Mahler’s Separation Individuation Theory, except that the theory was supposed to apply to an infant. Not to a 26 year old lady.)
Below are the quotes from Uncle Jack that I absolutely love because I think Harper Lee might have studied some psychiatry or dabbled in some psychology when she wrote this scene.
Uncle Jack said to Scout “…now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings – I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes them like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers will always be his answer. When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience – your conscience – you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you. You had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity,”
Powerful, isn’t it? I love it!
There are many more psychiatry-esque quotes like the above towards the end of the novel and I drank them all like a desert traveler with an unquenchable thirst. I can see now why Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize. She was amazing!
I read To Kill A Mocking Bird when I was a teenager, with a teenager’s understanding and a teenager’s limitation. Even then, I had loved it. Loved Atticus. Loved Scout. Or maybe… love (as in, present tense).
I read Go Set A Watchman as a fullly grown adult, and I love Atticus and Scout even more. The only difference is that, my love for them are more realistic now.
I have mentioned before that the reason why I choose to specialise in psychiatry is because I love reading. Characters and characterization in novels that I read all my life give me the interest I have in psychiatry. Without a doubt, deep, meaningful novel like this is responsible for my career choice. My love of literature and my passion for beautiful words are the beacon that bids me to psychiatry. And I have been following that beacon ever since.
So, now, whenever I am reading a novel, I will pretend that it is part of my psychiatry academic revision. After all, how else am I supposed to keep the beacon burning bright, if I stop reading, right?