Go Set a Watchman is probably the most controversial book released in 2015. Even before it was published and released, Harper Lee‘s “new” novel was surrounded by rumors and controversy; controversy surrounding the nature of the discovery of the manuscript, the circumstances behind its publication, and even on the author herself – regarding her health, and mental state of mind.
Besides conspiracy, there’s also a lot of confusion surrounding Go Set a Watchman. Before it was released on July 14, it wasn’t exactly clear if it was a prequel, or a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, as previously believed. Later it was reported that Go Set a Watchman was not a sequel or prequel, but an early draft of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird – a draft that Harper Lee’s editor told her to re-write. So in essence, To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of the author’s revisions of her earlier draft, which we know now to be Go Set a Watchman. The question is, if it was a failed first draft, why was it published 65 years later?
(Spoilers for Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird beyond this point)
Go Set a Watchman begins with a 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch (known to everyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird as Scout) returning to her hometown, Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she resides and works. Though she returns to Maycomb every year since moving to New York 5 years prior, this trip was different in that she discovers certain disturbing truths about the people she loves.
Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, which was set in 1935, Go Set a Watchman is set sometime between 1953-1954, during the United State’s Civil Rights Movement. The nation was implementing drastic changes in favor of African Americans, including the landmark Supreme Court Case, Brown v. Board of Education, which allowed African American children to go to the same schools with white children.
In defense to the fast-changing laws in favor of equal rights for African American citizens, cities and towns in the South, including Maycomb formed Citizen’s Councils, made up of the town’s prominent white citizens, to uphold traditional Southern principles and beliefs. In other parts of the country, Citizen’s Councils are identified as nothing but racist, pro-segregation groups, whose members see African Americans as inferiors who don’t deserve the same rights as white Americans.
So, imagine Jean Louise Finch’s surprise when she finds out during her recent visit that her beloved father, Atticus, and soon-to-be fiance, Hank, were members of the Maycomb Citizen’s Council. Raised by her father, with the help of their African American cook, Calpurnia, Jean Louise was taught to treat everyone fairly, and equally, regardless of their skin color. She had known her father to be a staunch defender of the rights of African Americans, and even successfully defended a young black man accused of raping a white girl, once. She looked up to her father, as the embodiment of everything that is just and fair.
Upon the discovery of her father’s affiliation with council, Jean Louise’s world crashed down, along with everything she believed in, not just about her father, but about herself, and her upbringing. She starts to question the sanity, not only of the community, and her family, but her own, for having opinions and a mindset so different from everyone in her hometown. She questions her past, and everything she was taught to believe, and she questions her future, as a Finch, and as a resident of Maycomb.
There was a general uproar online on the day Go Set a Watchman was released. Critics and readers were frustrated at the bad plot, but mostly, they were shocked at the author’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch was an upstanding citizen of Maycomb who defended the rights of everyone, blacks and whites alike. In Watchman, however, he was a pro-segregationist who believed that African Americans are inferior in every way from the whites. Readers were outraged at how Atticus could have evolved into a racist, white supremacist. However, the thing to remember is that Watchman is a failed version of Mockingbird, not a sequel, so, in reality, Atticus didn’t really change at all – Atticus in Watchman is the early version of Atticus, before he was changed into the beloved character in Mockingbird.
It’s difficult, no, IMPOSSIBLE, not to compare Go Set a Watchman with To Kill a Mockingbird, especially if, like me, you read/re-read To Kill a Mockingbird in a few days before reading Watchman. There are marked differences between the two novels. One of the first things readers will notice is that Jean Louise’s brother Jem is virtually non-existent Watchman. In Watchman, Jem died in the middle of the streets from a heart attack when he was in his mid twenties, and there was really no mention of him apart from a few random childhood memories shared by Jean Louise. Then there’s the existence of Jean Louise’s boyfriend, Henry, whom she described as her best friend who grew up with her and Jem and lived across the street from them. Henry seems to be an early version of Dill, though Dill was actually mentioned in passing in Watchman. Another beloved Mockingbird character who doesn’t exist in Watchman is Boo Radley, and the whole Radley clan. The biggest difference between the two novels has to do with Tom Robinson’s case. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson was the young black man accused of raping a young white woman. Robinson was represented by Atticus, who defended him to no avail. In Watchman, Tom Robinson was accused of raping a 14-year-old white girl. He was also represented by Atticus, who got him an acquittal.
Despite all the bad reviews, controversy, and rumors surrounding Go Set a Watchman, I actually enjoyed it. It was a very compelling, intriguing read, even though I, at first was frustrated because I kept comparing it to To Kill a Mockingbird. They key to enjoying this novel is to remember that it’s a first draft, not a sequel – To Kill a Mockingbird set in an alternate universe, if you will. If you recently read Mockingbird, you’ll notice that Watchman uses the exact same words and phrases to describe places, people, and the history and origin of Maycomb (or the other way around, since technically, Watchman was written first). In Watchman, the Scout, Jem, and Atticus that we all know and love from Mockingbird does not exist, and never have. They are, simply who they are in Go Set a Watchman.
Like a lot of readers, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, which I first read when I was in high school. Its simplicity inspired and impressed me. At the time, I read the novel from the perspective of Scout Finch – I could relate to her and Jem, and Dill. Reading it again as an adult, my perspective of the novel changed. Unintentionally, I read the novel from the point of view of Atticus; from the perspective of a parent wanting to teach his children how to understand people, and to treat everyone fairly, and with respect. When I was young, Atticus’ wisdom was fairly lost on me, being mostly fascinated with Scout, Jem, Dill, and the mystery of Boo Radley. Now, I admired Atticus, and wished that when the time came, I would possess his wisdom and fortitude and pass it on to my children.
Despite what critics say, Go Set a Watchman didn’t destroy Atticus Finch for me, and it sure didn’t destroy To Kill a Mockingbird; One will always be considered a Classic work of literature, and the other just a failed first draft that happened to be published.
Go Set a Watchman (2015) – Harper Lee
Harper Collins; 278 pages (Hardbound)
Personal rating: 3/5