Harper Lee’s long unreleased novel “Go Set a Watchman” is loaded with baggage. Written before her 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” but set in the 1950’s rather than the 1930’s, “Go Set a Watchman” is more prototype than prequel or sequel. It is not a continuation of the lives of the Atticus and Scout readers are familiar with. This is an alternate narrative in which Atticus Finch’s trial defense of a black man accused of rape is mentioned only in passing and resulted in acquittal. Scout’s brother Jem is dead (we’re told quite early), and Scout now goes by the less juvenile Jean Louis.
In short, there’s a reason why Harper Lee ran with “To Kill a Mockingbird” instead of “Go Set a Watchman.” The latter on the whole lacks precision and is largely forgettable compared to its widely regarded predecessor.
Our story commences with Scout’s return to Maycomb, Alabama after living in New York City for several years. Back home she discovers a startling retrograde mindset among those closest to her, a reaction brought about by the nascent Civil Rights Movement and Brown v. Board of Education. In reference to the book of Isaiah, Scout plays the role of “watchman” who bears witness to the injustice and prejudice swimming around her.
This book’s trouble begins with Scout. She is simply not as likeable a character this time around. Tellingly, the confident first person narrative of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which does so much to endear the reader to Scout, is replaced with the more distant third person.
Her relationship with the new peer influence in her life, a young suitor named Henry, lacks the depth we saw between her and Jem. In fact, every conversation Scout has feels forced. The most convincing scene of the entire story is Scout’s recollection of a vignette from her childhood wherein she, Jem, and Dill play “revival” and perform an innocent-eyed church service.
One can only conclude that Lee is much more capable of depicting children than adults.
Beyond her conversational difficulties, Scout lacks verisimilitude. Could a girl who grew up in Maycomb really have been so oblivious to its undercurrents? Lee attributes Scout’s bewilderment to the simple fact that she is “color blind.” While this assertion gets the point across, it is unconvincing and fails to do her progressive outlook justice.
The action crescendos in a series of verbal confrontations between Scout, her Uncle Jack and her father Atticus.
These exchanges score some redemptive points for raising difficult, complex questions. Can one legislate morality, and does that open the door to tyranny? More importantly, how does one deal with good people who exhibit prejudice in spite of their inherent goodness?
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the face of racism is manifested by the knuckle dragging Mr. Ewell, with Atticus Finch playing his virtuous foil. “Go Set a Watchman” features a grainier Atticus who has all the stoicism and habitual rational that he did in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but chooses to keep a foot in the nineteenth century. This suggests that good and evil play out in more nuanced fashion in the real world.
Much critique of ‘Go Set a Watchman” rests on Harper Lee fans’ disapproval of Atticus Finch’s new outlook on race which sullies his literary memory.
While it pains one to see a less than hallowed version of Atticus, his transformation in Scout’s eyes from the loving father figure of her youth to recalcitrant southerner reminds us that society isn’t guaranteed to move in only one direction over time. A tale which leaves the reader with more questions than answers isn’t very satisfying, but one must give Lee credit for taking on the complexities associated with radical social change.
Still, the quarrelsome climax leaves one wanting more. It has a staccato quality which prevents true reader immersion and lacks a stirring moment akin to Atticus Finch’s timeless courtroom defense of Tom Robinson. In the end, the wise Atticus makes a far superior watchman than the bemused Scout, and that makes all the difference between the two tales.
“Go Set a Watchman” is a passable book for adults. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic for all ages.