Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee


When the news first broke that Harper Lee was to release a second book, I’ll admit that I didn’t believe it. The enigma that has been Harper Lee surprised me indefinitely with the decision to release this book. To Kill A Mockingbird owns such a large part of my literary soul that I felt thrilled beyond words to get anymore of the life and world I loved. But then the reviews started arriving, and Lee shocked me all over again- Atticus Finch, the hero of Scout and everyone else’s childhood, had become, in Lee’s new novel, the antithesis of all we’d known him to be. ‘Atticus Finch is a racist and Jem is dead,’ the reviews screamed. And admittedly my heart did break; I was lost because a truth I had believed in had turned to ashes of lies ten years after I’d fallen love with the truth. But I had to read this book. Despite the warnings of reviews claiming that it’d ruin the halcyon of To Kill A Mockingbird, I had to read this book. And I’m very glad that I did.

Scout has morphed into a 26 year-old Jean Louise, a university student in NYC who visits her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama out of obligation to aid her aging and sick father, Atticus. She’s grown out of her tomboy lifestyle and finds herself in some kind of love with Henry, Jem’s childhood friend. Jean Louise’s reflections on Maycomb and her realizations that it is a city stuck forever in the ignorant past comfort me. She’s grown into a feminist and a kind person, someone who sticks up for her beliefs and for others’ rights. And in her opinion, she turned out this way because of being raised by Atticus Finch, an honorable man who taught her to be fair and good. Jean Louise debates with herself about her feelings for Henry, a man who is obviously in love with her. She reflects that she may love Henry and then realizes this feeling is not okay- it is a sort of settling. ‘Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you do or you don’t proposition with them all.’ Jean Louise knows perhaps her entire life that she doesn’t love Henry the way she wants to love her future husband. This is the first problem for Jean Louise, but it exists in a small capacity, even at the beginning of the novel. Her real problems have yet to begin.

I will admit, absolutely everything differs from To Kill A Mockingbird in Go Set A Watchman: Jem is gone, Atticus fails us, Calpurnia is distant, and Jean Louise feels hatred. It does not feel like the same world, and that is both shocking and disappointing to readers who have loved To Kill A Mockingbird for their entire lives. But this is also the strongest bit of Go Set A Watchman: our horror that the story has changed is Scout’s horror too. Jean Louise decides to follow her father and Henry to a mysterious meeting and here she learns the shocking truth that changes our very foundation and hers as well: Henry, the man Jean Louise has promised and is trying to love, alongside Atticus, the man Jean Louise adores effortlessly, is attending meetings in support of segregation. Atticus, the man who fought for a black man only years ago, claiming that he fought for fairness despite color, now fights for something we and Jean Louise see as extremely unfair and out of character. It breaks our hearts and feels like a slap in the face- but Lee does not play as if this is a forgivable and understandable quality of Atticus; rather, she condemns him via Jean Louise for the rest of the novel. Hatred permeates her. It’s a dark and scary journey for Jean Louise, one which causes her to relearn absolutely everything she thought she knew.

‘You who called me Scout are dead in your grave.’ The hatred is real and true and lasting. This story is not about a father and daughter relationship; it’s not about a family going through a hard lesson together. That was To Kill A Mockingbird. This tells the tale of a woman who has come into her own set of beliefs, who has grown independently but not independently enough. It’s the story of a woman finding the truth about humanity: no human being is perfect. None of us are suited for the role of hero. Not even Atticus Finch. It’s the story of a woman trying to piece back together her heart that has been shattered by discovering that her childhood was simply an illusion. And in the end it’s a story of a woman who has to find a way to love her father for the man that he is rather than the hero she’s thought him to be.

‘I need a watchman to go forward and proclaim to them all that 26 years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.’ The unfairness permeates. The heartbreak persists, throbs in every thought she has. Jean Louise attempts to slink away from Maycomb, to forget the city and her father and Henry, to go back to NYC to the civilized human beings. But first comes a confrontation with Atticus, one she won’t participate in because of her desire: ‘She had been half willing to sponge out what she had seen and heard, creep back to New York, and make him a memory. A memory of the three of them, Atticus, Jem, and her, when things were uncomplicated and people did not lie. But she could not let him add hypocrisy to the lie.’ Disgust and anger trump fear, trump the fear that she will ruin her relationship, both past and future, with her father. ‘Why didn’t you hit me instead? For God’s sake, Atticus!’ He has wounded her deeply: ‘I mean I grew up right here in your house, and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me that we were naturally better than the Negroes. You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus. I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me. I believed in you. I looked up to like I’ve never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. You’re the only person I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for. I despise you and everything you stand for.’ Jean Louise likens her father to Hitler and throws more insults at him, not faltering when he professes his undying love for her despite. The rage fills Jean Louise and letting it out consumes and refreshes her.

As she beings to leave, her uncle stops her, a man that reminds me so much of Jem that it hurts (his absence is very strange). Jack, Atticus’ brother, explains to Jean Louise that she needed to see the real Atticus, needed to come back to let go of her adoration and naivety about her father, to detach herself enough to love him in a better and real way. Jean Louise defines herself as Color Blind constantly throughout the novel- and colorblind is how things should be. But this leaves her unable to see things as they actually are (Atticus as a typical white Southern male, Henry as the same).

The novel culminates in a conversation between Jean Louise and Jack in which Jack provides some insight into the healing process for Jean Louise. He shows her that reality consists truly of grays: ‘prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.’ Opposites aren’t far apart, and it’s no wonder that Jean Louise got her father entirely wrong. Perhaps her foundation for loving her father is wrong, but she loves him nonetheless. Scout needs to leave Maycomb. Needs to abandon her adoration. But there’s a reconciliation: ‘I think I love you very much,’ Jean Louise tells Atticus on the last page of the novel. And Lee’s gift comes in the last paragraph of Go Set A Watchman: ‘She stepped aside to let him pass. She followed him to the car and watched him get laboriously into the front seat. As she welcomed him silently to the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little. Somebody walked over my grave, she thought, probably Jem on some idiotic errand.’ Jean Louise welcomes her father to the human race; she’s reduced him from the status of hero and because of his new status as a human being, she can love him again. Differently. But love nonetheless. And this is exactly how I feel about the novel: I love it, but so much differently from the way I love and will always love To Kill A Mockingbird. To Kill A Mockingbird provides childhood and comfort and love. Go Set A Watchman provides reconciliation and truth. Both are beautiful, both contribute to the ability to live.

To Kill A Mockingbird has not been ruined for me by Go Set A Watchman. In fact, it’s been improved. To have the luxury of going back to a better time of love and familiarity- beautiful. I’m with you Scout, just as I’m with you, Jean Louise.


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