The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] How to read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : May 23, 2017 - 17:42

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“Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s sequel to her seminal novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” received mixed reviews. While a few wrote favorable reviews, most reviewers expressed disappointment, especially when compared to “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It may not be undeniable that “Go Set a Watchman” lacks the exquisite quality of the first book. Nevertheless, it has its own strength and charm, especially in its theme.

In “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now 26, returns from New York City to her hometown, Maycomb, Alabama, on a brief annual visit.

Whereas the setting of “Mockingbird” is the 1930s, “Watchman” is set in the 1950s. Louise discovers racial bigotry in her home community and is disappointed in the Deep South villagers. She is particularly disillusioned with her father, Atticus -- who she had idolized -- when she finds a pamphlet, “The Black Plague,” on his desk and discovers he is involved in a town meeting where a man delivers a racist speech. Louise, who had always thought of her father as the moral watchman of Maycomb, is now deeply disillusioned and, as a result, vehemently criticizes Atticus.

Devastated, Jean Louise decides to return to New York. Jack, a retired doctor and Atticus’ brother, explains the situation to her. He assures Jean Louise that Atticus is not a racist; he just wants to slow down the Federal government’s intervention that creates controversy with tthe National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Jack also tells Louise that Atticus thinks that the African-Americans of the South are not ready for full civil rights yet, as the NAACP people are too aggressive, often manipulating the court and threatening the town’s peace.

However, Louise is still confused because that is contrary to what her father has taught and embodied. Jack advises Louise that she is not supposed to fasten her conscience to her father’s. He tells Louise that everybody has his or her own moral watchman, that is, one’s conscience. Since there is no such thing as a collective watchman, she cannot force her conscience on another. He enlightens Louise that the common thing between prejudice and absolute faith is that they begin when reason ends.

When Jack smokes, Louise is confused because her uncle has objected to smoking for a long time. Jack illuminates her once again, saying that there is no such thing as absolute justice or truth. People can change and so can truth and justice. In that sense, Atticus’ change of attitude, too, is understandable because he is getting old and the NAACP is pushing to the extreme. When you get old, you become conservative and discreet to a certain extent, no matter how liberal you were in your youth. By acknowledging it, Louise is initiated into adulthood. Therefore, her trip to Maycomb is a spiritual journey that opens her eyes to reality.

When political correctness was rampant in the United States in the 1990s, radical and hostile African-American scholars unjustly accused even Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Leslie Fiedler as racists, though they were ardent supporters of African-Americans.

Fiedler was a foremost liberal literary critic representing the spirit of the 1960s. When he grew older, however, young radicals criticized him as conservative. When I met Fiedler in New York before he passed away, he chuckled, clicking his tongue, “All through my life, I have been a liberal. Now these youngsters call me a conservative. Do you believe that?” I could feel how he felt at that time. The same thing may have happened to Atticus, too, as he grew older.

That is why when you are inclined to criticize someone older than you, you should always take his experience into account. His experiences were different from yours. Perhaps he did his best in his time. Besides, it is unwise to accuse someone who has supported you. Unfortunately, young people, like Louise, do not try to understand older people and tend to indiscriminately condemn those who are older than them under the excuse of political correctness.

A few weeks ago, when I delivered a lecture at a university in Seoul, a student approached me and asked, “Professor Kim, if there was no truth, wouldn’t it be confusing?”

“I didn’t say there’s no truth.” I replied. “I said there was no ‘one and only truth.’ The absolute truth can easily be degraded into dogma. Then it can hurt or even kill others who don’t follow it.” But he was still perplexed and repeated the same question, “But what about my belief?”

I replied, “Think about Jorge of Burgos and Bernard Gui in Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose.’ They kill people because of their belief.”

Unfortunately, the confused student still did not seem to understand what I meant.

On reading “Go Set a Watchman,” the reader once again realizes that there is no such thing as absolute truth or justice, and therefore we cannot impose our beliefs on others.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at -- Ed.