In a lighter moment, a wizened professor once reflected to a group of us students: “Parenting’s a game that never ends, and you never win.”
This phrase holds true in examining the relationship between Atticus Finch and his daughter Jean Louise in Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Watchman takes place eighteen years later. Finch is 72 and in poor health. Jean Louise is 26, visiting her home town of Maycomb, Alabama, while on a break from law school in New York City. This Atticus Finch is a somewhat different character than the genteel gentleman in Mockingbird—both the book and the film versions. Watchman was a first draft for the characters in Mockingbird, even though Watchman takes place eighteen years later.
The title of Lee’s second novel comes from the Old Testament: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” – Isaiah 21:6.
This novel teems with the powerful themes of spiritual guidance, racial unity, countering the challenge of white supremacy, and integrity in challenging relationships. The Baha’i writings provide striking answers to the protagonists’ challenges in these areas.
In the book, Jean Louise is riven with identity struggles, including her small-town Alabama heritage versus the cosmopolitan influence of New York City, and her confusion and anger over her father’s not-very-enlightened views on African Americans. She yearns for a spiritual mooring:
I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. – Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman: A Novel. (all quotes from the Kindle edition.)
As an answer to those, who, like Jean Louise, seek truth and grounding, the Baha’i writings confirm the indisputability of the Faith as a lodestar for not only the individual, but for society as well:
This is the infallible Balance which the Hand of God is holding, in which all who are in the heavens and all who are on the earth are weighed, and their fate determined, if ye be of them that believe and recognize this truth … Say: Through it the poor have been enriched, the learned enlightened, and the seekers enabled to ascend unto the presence of God … – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 182.
Racial Unity and Countering White Supremacy
Jean Louise is literally and spiritually color blind. Her Uncle Jack, a doctor, counsels her:
“You’re color blind, Jean Louise,” he said. “You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people.” – Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman: A Novel.
Parallel to the views of Jean Louise, racial unity is integral to Baha’i teachings:
God maketh no distinction between the white and the black. If the hearts are pure both are acceptable unto Him. God is no respecter of persons on account of either color or race. All colors are acceptable to Him, be they white, black, or yellow. Inasmuch as all were created in the image of God, we must bring ourselves to realize that all embody divine possibilities. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 113.
The white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan and their influence in Maycomb play a role in the novel. In the same conversation with Jean Louise, Uncle Jack further notes:
The white supremacists are really pretty smart. If they can’t scare us with the essential inferiority line, they’ll wrap it in a miasma of sex, because that’s the one thing they know is feared in our fundamentalist hearts down here. They try to strike terror in Southern mothers, lest their children grow up to fall in love with Negroes. If they didn’t make an issue of it, the issue would rarely arise. If the issue arose, it would be met on private ground … But the white supremacists fear reason, because they know cold reason beats them … – Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman: A Novel.
Uncle Jack’s perception, while originating in fiction, accurately describes the modus operandi of white supremacists in the 1930s—and today. The Baha’i writings proclaim an invincible, divine counteractant to such prejudice:
The theories and policies, so unsound, so pernicious, which … discriminate between the black and the white, and which tolerate the dominance of one privileged class over all others—these are the dark, the false, and crooked doctrines for which any man or people who believes in them, or acts upon them, must, sooner or later, incur the wrath and chastisement of God. – Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 113.
Integrity in Relationships
In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus and Jean Louise Finch have a challenging relationship. Jean Louise discovers that her father, despite his heroism in defending an accused rapist in a trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, harbors deep misgivings about the civil rights movement. Finch feels that entities such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the federal government, as a result of the Brown versus Board of Education decision (a major step toward ending segregation in the U.S.) are encroaching on a time-honored southern way of life through forced integration of schools. Worse yet, he wrongly believes that a Communist ideology fuels the NAACP. Finch’s conviction is that Southern whites and blacks are on the road to resolving their differences–regardless of the influence of outsiders.
Jean Louise finds this viewpoint appalling, and acidly lambasts her father:
“Atticus, I’m throwing it at you and I’m gonna grind it in… You deny that they’re human [a reference to African Americans].” – Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman: A Novel.
In this exchange, we see that both characters are highly grounded in their values. Finch doesn’t pretend to be a full-blown civil rights advocate, disturbing as it may be to us today. Conversely, Jean Louise is strident in her aim for full and immediate equality for African Americans.
This communication is reflective of Baha’u’llah’s teachings regarding integrity–for both characters:
Be of the people of hell-fire, but be not a hypocrite. Be thou an unbeliever, but not a plotter. Make thy home in taverns, but tread not the path of the mischief-maker. Fear thou God, but not the priest. Give to the executioner thy head, but not thy heart. Let thine abode be under the stone, but seek not the shelter of the cleric. – Baha’u’llah, Spiritual Strength for Men, p. 32.
Yet because daughter and father are so deeply sincere and unequivocal with each other, their bond grows. In the wake of this blistering rebuke, Atticus reaffirms his love, and respect, for Jean Louise: “Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right—stand up to me first of all.” – Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman: A Novel.
Perhaps one never wins at parenting, but at least it’s a tie ballgame for Atticus and Jean Louise Finch.