Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: Sequel or Alternate Storyline?
Allow me to start with a warning: if you’ve ever idolized Atticus Finch, or to quote Jack Finch in Go Set a Watchman, “confused him with God”, read no further: here there be dragons. Unless you have a proclivity for disappointment.
Go Set a Watchman follows Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, who returns to Maycomb, Alabama from New York and struggles to come to terms with the reality of the people she grew up with. To Kill a Mockingbird revolves around a lawyer (Atticus Finch) and his impassioned defense, in spite of mounting social pressure, of an innocent black man accused of raping a white girl in a small conservative town in the Southern United States, all seen through the eyes of the lawyer’s young daughter (Scout).
So where does this book stand compared to its prequel, or as most tend to believe now, its revised draft?
Both are largely narrated by and detail events from Scout’s perspective and are about the racial tensions of the South. But Scout is now twenty years older and the difference in the narratives reflects this. Expect far fewer quirky little anecdotes you’d hear from a six-year old narrator: there aren’t any cranky Mrs Duboses and reclusive Boo Radleys in this one. The nickname Scout itself is mentioned only occasionally; she’s Jean Louise for all purposes in this book—and yet, I for one, will continue to refer to her as Scout, not least because I prefer to remember the Finches as they were in TKAM. The plot mainly consists of Scout’s introspection interspersed with flashbacks: some nostalgic, others vaguely humorous. The voice of reason here, comes not from her father but from her elegant Uncle Jack with a fetish for all things Victorian.
While a courthouse drama forms the backdrop of the action in To Kill a Mockingbird, here the action is contained in Scout’s inner struggle to make sense of the drastic changes she sees. The plot here is set in the two ongoing ideological wars—the clash of opinions between her father and herself and her difficulty in reconciling the Atticus Finch of her childhood with the present embittered racist shadow of his former self.
“…all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.”
Jean Louise also stars as the protagonist in her own internal, albeit delayed, coming-of-age narrative. Until the events of this novel, she finds herself cocooned from the South’s deeply ingrained racial tensions. Indeed, she was always aware of their existence; but they never intruded in her own personal sphere, aided in part by the close family dynamic she shared with Calpurnia, the black housemaid and sole maternal figure in her life and the liberal atmosphere her father brought her up in.
The novel also touches upon several other themes--class divisions among whites, the freedom to express one’s opinions as a function of one’s social standing and vestigial tensions between the erstwhile Confederate states and the rest of the country. Closer to home, the recent surge in incidents that reek of bigotry and intolerance makes the novel’s narrative of the ugly lengths to which people might go to uphold their illusions of tradition seem all too familiar. The youth could also relate to other issues such as the dilemma children face when choosing between looking after aging parents and pursuing career goals.
“…twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”
For readers, the joke lasted a whole fifty-five years. In demolishing the stature of Atticus Finch—as a paragon of integrity and morality, one that has firmly taken root in literature over a course of half a century—we feel ourselves reeling with shock just as much as Jean-Louise does.
I finished this novel feeling a trifle cheated --Go Set a Watchman appears to have killed off the Atticus Finch I’ve always known. Yet the conclusion of the novel does offer a shred of hope. After being bombarded with the choicest invectives by his daughter, the old Atticus appears to shine through when he tells her he’s proud she stood up for her beliefs, even if it was against himself. Or maybe that’s just me desperately trying to hold on to TKAM’s Atticus.