Setting a Watchman and Killing Your Father

Screenshot from the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.

Screenshot from the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.

I finished Lee’s Go Set a Watchman this week and I had a visceral reaction to the ending scenes. I share in the general disgust of Atticus’ position on segregation: learning that he’s a KKK sympathizer is as disappointing as it is sad. That fact, however, isn’t the main theme of the novel. The theme is that we must, at some point in our adult lives, tell our parents to go to hell.

Ever had a different political position than your parents? It’s uncomfortable, to say the least, especially if you have a good relationship with your parents. They play the, “I’ve been around longer than you so I know best” card, or they exude disappointment for your wayward ways.  Sometimes they shut down all discussion, which is like putting a lid on a boiling pot: enjoy the fake truce, but the argument is looming over everyone.

This is a natural process I guess: we all realize as we grow up that our parents are human too, and that they don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes we will take issue with their answers. The truth is what matters, so both child and parent need to have some humility, or the relationship shatters. This is what resonates about Lee’s novel: the inevitable conflict of conscience one has with a beloved parent.

It can feel like betrayal if the issue is serious enough. Says Jean Louise: “I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me…you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in a no-man’s land but good –there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.”

Jean Louise knows her views are irreconcilable with her father’s.  She packs to leave until her uncle persuades her that what happened between her and Atticus is natural: her father still loves her no matter what, and like any good parent he just let her break all her idols, let her tear down the pedestal she built for him. It’s a powerful scene, because it rings true. And while I wanted Jean Louise to leave, I found myself reluctantly agreeing with her uncle. She and Atticus are on opposite poles, but if the truth really matters, then the dissenters need to have the humility to stick around.

“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”

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