Book review: ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ by Harper Lee
Special to the Daily
The literary world was rocked last spring when news surfaced that author Harper Lee, the creator of the beloved modern classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” had penned another story set in Maycomb Junction, Alabama. Written first, “Go Set a Watchman” was released this year amidst much controversy, causing many die-hard fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird” to question the manuscript’s quality and even its authenticity.
Set when Jean-Louise — better known as Scout — is an adult, as she is visiting her childhood home from her job in New York City, “Go Set a Watchman” very quickly places itself apart from Lee’s much-loved exploration of Scout’s childhood. Jean-Louis is a modern young woman, and she sees herself as more sophisticated and worldly than those she left behind in the backwoods town of her youth.
She is reluctant to be returning, certain she can no longer relate to the pace and the pulse of the small Southern town. She sees Maycomb with new eyes, the eyes of one who has gone away and grown worldly, who has had prejudices erased and a mind opened. As the narrative unfolds, other familiar characters emerge, some only as memories, memories for both Jean-Louise and for the reader. In this regard, anyone who has read — and has loved — “To Kill a Mockingbird” will find it difficult to accept this world of Jean-Louise’s that Lee imagined first.
Lee’s voice as a writer is so unlike that of “To Kill a Mockingbird” that it is easy to see how many critics categorize “Go Set a Watchman” as a first draft that perhaps should never have seen publication. She flits loosely between Jean-Louise’s memories of her past and her disjointed present, and it is when Lee drifts back into her character’s childhood that one sees glimpses of what is most loved about “To Kill a Mockingbird” — the innocence of youth and Lee’s gift for imaginative storytelling.
At its heart, “Go Set a Watchman” is a story about home and what that means, raising the question of whether one can really ever go back. It proposes that people can simultaneously want to flee from where they grew up and also yearn for it. Lee describes the dichotomy so, “It was not because this was where your life began. It was because this was where people were born and born and born until finally the result was you, drinking a Coke in the Jitney Jungle.”
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As Jean-Louise sinks back into her past, she is mortified with what she observes happening to everyone in the town. This becomes all the more apparent after she sees Atticus, now an elderly man, weakened and diminished, suffering from crippling arthritis. He is a shadow of the strong personality familiar to readers from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He is also, in his old age, much to both Jean-Louise and every fans’ dismay, a bigot, a man unrecognizable to the moral rock she knew him to be when she was a child.
The most intriguing part of “Go Set a Watchman” is the fascinating contrast and juxtaposition Lee sets up between what the people around Jean-Louise are saying and the horrified internal reaction taking place inside her head as she comes to terms with seeing her idol, Atticus, brought down to earth by the views he reveals. The “watchman,” it seems, might be Jean-Louise’s internal moral compass, tested as her world is rocked and she is faced with the loss of her true north. In the words of her uncle, “Every man’s island, Jean-Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as collective conscience.”
At its core, the book seems to be a critique of rigid viewpoints and ideologies and just what it means to be a bigot. As Atticus tells his confused daughter, “prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: They both begin where reason ends.” Lee’s jab at religion is a subtle one, but her critique of the bigotry is much more pointed.
One cannot unlearn the futures Lee reveals about the characters the world loves. Perhaps better suited as a critical essay than a novel, “Go Set a Watchman” needs to be approached carefully, for reading it can sully one’s view of the beauty of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”