By Narrelle Gilchrist
Like countless other To Kill a Mockingbird fans, I felt my heart leap at the sight of the byline “Harper Lee” on the newest release in the bookstore, the long-awaited gateway into the expanded world of Scout, Jem, Boo Radley, and Atticus Finch. Yet, Go Set a Watchman, the now infamous sequel to one of the most treasured novels of all time, is far from the dream of every literary devotee. The world of the Finches and Maycomb County has returned, but it has been vastly transformed. Dill is in a far-off county, mentioned only as an after-thought, Jem is dead, Boo Radley does not appear at all, and Atticus Finch sits on a pro-segregationist Council. However, before Go Set a Watchman is cast into the pile of literary mistakes and disappointments, it is important to place the novel in its unique context, a context that will allow readers to understand its true value.
In Harper Lee’s second novel, Jean Louise Finch, now twenty-six years old, returns to Maycomb County to visit her arthritic father and reconnect with the land of her childhood. Now living in New York City, Jean Louise feels distinctly out of place in the heart of the South, and struggles to understand the lives of her Aunt Alexandra, Henry Clinton, her childhood friend and de facto fiancé, her Uncle Jack, and even her father, Atticus. Peppered with memories from her childhood, the progression of the novel shows Jean Louise’s inability to accept a deviation from her ways, and chronicles her slow disillusionment, as her vision of her idyllic childhood bursts. When she sees Atticus and Henry participating in a citizen’s council meeting where a pro-segregationist, racist speaker is visiting, she instantly recoils from everything involved with Maycomb County. She angrily confronts first Aunt Alexandra, Uncle Jack, and Henry in turn, until finally turning to Atticus. Finding no resolution, Jean Louise attempts to flee Maycomb, permanently breaking ties with her family, but finally resolves that she must merely accept her imperfect reality.
Before settling down to read Go Set a Watchman, it is essential to understand that the novel is in no way a true sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. A more accurate description of the pair of novels would be a “loosely-connected” series, and in reality, it was never intended to be a series at all. Go Set a Watchman was in fact written before To Kill a Mockingbird, rejected by several publishers, and scrapped by Harper Lee. This discontinuity explains why many of the characters who were prominent in To Kill a Mockingbird, including Miss Maudie, Boo Radley, and Dill, are barely in the sequel at all. In fact, when Jean Louise recounts the Tom Robinson rape case of her childhood, she remembers Atticus winning an acquittal, a sharp departure from the events of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, despite all these discontinuities, the difference between the two novels that readers will feel the most is the difference in the portrayal of Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch no longer unvaryingly sticks up for justice and morality; rather, he sits on a racist council. This discontinuity seems inexplicable and unbearable, but it must also be put into context. When Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman, she intended Jean Louise alone to be the protagonist and never intended Atticus Finch to be the beloved character that he has become. Therefore, she could not have predicted the effects that shattering Atticus’s integrity would have on the readers who have come to view him as society’s moral backbone. To soften the blow, it may be beneficial to the reader not to think about Harper Lee’s cherished first novel at all while reading her second or even not to view it as canonical to the story of the Finch family.
Another context vital to understanding Go Set a Watchman is the time and place in which it was written – the South in the 1960s. In effect, Harper Lee is attempting to paint a visceral image of the reality of this pro-segregationist society. Today, it is hard to understand the mindset of the anti-NAACP Southerners dedicated to keeping “Negroes” in their “place.” Yet, so many individuals, otherwise law-abiding, moral people, staunchly resisted the wave of desegregation. While this stance today is viewed as morally reprehensible, not too long ago it was held by a large number of every day people, our friends and neighbors, and understanding the mindset of those individuals should be possible. This quest for understanding is the journey both Jean Louise and the reader undertake throughout the course of the novel. The purpose of the novel is to show how real, normal people could have believed in and fought to preserve their segregated society, and it is done through the lens of someone who was living in the 1960s.
If the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is to accept and understand everyone for who they are, then the theme of Go Set a Watchman is to accept and understand all viewpoints, even the ones that you don’t agree with. As Atticus tells Jean Louise, “hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anybody.” It seems impossible to accept racism, but it is possible to understand how racist views could have been developed and justified amongst otherwise moral people. Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise, “What was incidental to the issue in our War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now.” As both the reader and Jean Louise ponder her uncle’s cryptic words, the truth becomes apparent: the war to preserve segregation, like the Civil War, was not fought primarily over the rights of African-Americans. Rather, it was fought over state rights, the need to preserve a way of life, and the cultural divide between the North and the South. Even Jean Louise voiced opposition to the Supreme Court ruling that paved the way towards desegregation and is today hailed as a historic landmark, because to her, the ruling was an example of the federal government invading her hometown. Today, as the news is filled with stories of police brutality and seemingly racist statements by presidential candidates, it is essential to understand that racism isn’t conceived out of mere hatred or bigotry. As Henry puts it, we need to “see beyond men’s acts to their motives.” The road to racism is filled with justifications and logical reasoning, and instead of merely dehumanizing those who hold those views, we should work to understand those justifications and refute them. Like almost everything in life, the question of racism is far from black and white; rather, the line between right and wrong is clouded in shades of grey.
Despite the discussion of racism that fills most of the novel, Harper Lee makes it clear that racism is only incidental to the core plot itself. The book’s real conflict is between Jean Louise and the Godlike vision of Atticus that she has constructed. All her life, Jean Louise has followed her father’s guidance, looking to him in times of trouble, treating his word as moral law, and consequentially failing to recognize him as a human capable of mistakes. Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise that both he and Atticus want her to be able to view Atticus as fallible and human. “As you grew up,” he tells her, “…you confused your father with God… You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting your answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.” After Jean Louise hears her father hold a seemingly racist view, her divine image of him finally shatters and she, in effect, becomes “her own person.” At the end of the novel, Jean Louise “welcomed [Atticus] silently to the human race,” signaling the climax of her disillusionment and the plot of the novel.
Go Set a Watchman in no way rivals the brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but it does have immense value in its own right. Its theme is controversial yet remarkably pertinent to our time. At times, the story can be confusing and the author’s intentions unclear, but in the end, the novel is successful in portraying its message, alongside vivid characters and delightful storytelling. While Harper Lee’s second novel won’t be imprinted in the hearts and minds of generations as her first one was, it is still definitely worth a read.
Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics.