Go Set a Watchman

Posted by on Aug 10, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Go Set a Watchman

Initially, I was not going to purchase this book. I feared it was a gimmicky release published in order to capitalize on the popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, as a high school English teacher, I knew people would ask my thoughts about it, so I capitulated and purchased Go Set a Watchman a few days after its release. I have waited so long to review it because I am still putting my thoughts about it in order.

The first thing I noticed about Watchman was the narrator’s style. As I read, I could hear Kim Stanley’s voice from the 1962 movie adaptation of Mockingbird. The tone and style of Watchman are consistent with those of Mockingbird, and I felt I was visiting an old friend.

A very old friend, as it turned out, who didn’t remember events the same way I remembered them…

In Watchman, when Jean Louise remembers the trial of Tom Robinson, there are some details that are wrong. In Mockingbird, Tom’s left arm was lame but entirely present, and Tom was found guilty at the trial. In Watchman, however, Tom’s left arm was missing, and Tom was acquitted.

One thing Harper Lee did with this book that was new at the time she wrote it was to experiment with stream-of-consciousness writing, a technique in which the author presents a character’s thoughts and reactions as a constant flow, replicating the thought processes as realistically as possible. This technique was well implemented many times, but there were a few times when Jean Louise’s thoughts wandered and never came back, leaving me confused.

I would have been able to overlook these things, however, if it were not for the message of the story.

Watchman is told from the perspective of an adult Jean Louise who has moved from New York but travels home once a year to visit for two weeks. When she arrives this time, she discovers that Atticus is involved in a communal group that opposes some recent Supreme Court decisions regarding segregation and the equality of blacks. While the exact issue was never addressed, because of the novel’s timeframe I received the impression that it was somehow tied into the desegregation of schools and equal rights. Jean Louise discovers that Atticus is involved in a community council opposed to these ideals and, while it is made clear that he is not against equal rights, Atticus does advocate a mindset that was very common to the cultural setting of the plot: one that views the agrarian South as a superior civilization in which the black man, while free, was not advanced enough to responsibly assume equal rights.

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story in which the adult Jean Louise reaches a new level of maturity. However, Watchman addresses the disillusionment all adults experience when they realize the parents they idolize are mere humans, just like the rest of us. As in Mockingbird, the catalyst for maturity is the discovery of an ugly cultural mindset. However, while Scout’s new maturity is displayed in her ability to transcend the communal prejudices of Maycomb, in Watchman the development of Jean Louise is portrayed by her acceptance of them. While she doesn’t agree with Atticus, she does consent that he is right on some level.

For this reason, I cannot advocate this book.

It is bad enough that the editor let the book go to print with such glaring discrepancies as those mentioned above. These issues could have easily been addressed, especially since the original author is still alive. But the fact that Jean Louise, as a normative character, accepts the view that Maycomb puts forth entirely ruins the book. When I closed the back cover, I felt as if I was closing the door on a meeting with an old friend I just realized I never really knew.

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