August Issue 2015
Book Review: Go Set A Watchman
For all those who have read To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s first and, until last month, only novel, Go Set A Watchman will shatter them. Utterly and completely.
Watchman is set in the mid-1950s, after the US Supreme Court decision in the Brown v Board of Education 1954 case made the segregation of black and white students in public schools illegal. Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch is 26 years old, lives in New York, strongly supports the Supreme Court decision and has no doubt that her father does too. Her ailing father is 72 years old and lives in her hometown, Maycomb, where Scout is visiting for a few weeks. It is during this stay that Scout is devastated to learn that the Atticus she had always looked up to, nay worshipped, never really existed. By his own admission, he is a white supremacist — something Scout has been shockingly blind to all her life. Atticus is clear that black children should not study alongside white children, and he does not believe black people are fit to participate in government either.
Readers are let down by Watchman because they simply cannot fathom Atticus Finch — that bastion of morality and racial equality in Mockingbird, a wellspring of advice on treating mankind with respect and dignity — being a racist. In Mockingbird, after he loses the trial of an innocent black man, Atticus tells his son, “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you.” In Watchman, on the other hand, Atticus tells his daughter that, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” The contrast could not be more stark.
It is in the comparison of Atticus’ character in both books that has shocked most readers. But they really shouldn’t be. As Harper Lee said herself many years ago, Watchman is merely the first draft of what later became To Kill A Mockingbird. This is the manuscript she took to Harper Collins in the ’50s. They told her it was not good enough and advised her to re-write the novel about Scout’s childhood experiences that were only touched upon in Watchman.
This is sufficient proof that Watchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird. Moreover, Harper Lee is now 89 years old and has been blind and deaf for several years. She has not had any contact with the media for many years either, so it is doubtful that she ever communicated her desire to have Watchman published. In addition, although the characters and plot overlap in both books, in Watchman there is one key detail (concerning the fate of the black man Atticus represents) that is completely different from that in Mockingbird. If Lee really intended to publish this novel as a sequel to Mockingbird, surely she would have amended this error. Finally, after reading Watchman, one can be in no doubt that this is not a novel Lee wanted to publish because it lacks the depth and intricacy of her first novel. All the Watchman reviews that have been published online contain several angst-ridden explanations in the comments section below explaining why all this outrage about the radical change in Atticus’ character is unfounded. He has not ‘become a racist,’ because there is no connection between Watchman and Mockingbird.
But even if we cannot legitimately compare the Atticus’ in both books, we can compare Atticus the bigot in Watchman, to the Atticus Scout remembers from her childhood introduced in Watchman itself. And if readers choose to read Watchman in this way, without comparing it to Mockingbird, it will still shatter them. Because Lee’s depiction of Scout’s coming-of-age, her painful realisation of how completely different she and her idol really are, is so raw.
According to Watchman, the Atticus Scout looked up to was just a projection of her own conscience. Scout had simply tacked her belief in racial equality onto her father because she loved him so much and wanted to look up to him. Watchman reminds us that everyone’s vision of the world is coloured by their values. Mockingbird was about how prejudice alters our perception of others — a great deal has been written about this. But Watchman is about how even our morals can blind us to reality and cause us pain.
Lee’s portrayal of Scout’s disillusionment is so extreme that the reader is forced to wonder whether it is possible for someone to misconstrue another’s character so badly, as Scout has? It is more likely that the Atticus from Scout’s childhood really did exist in the world of the novel, and that he changed. Perhaps we can interpret Atticus’ defence of the innocent black man as paternalistic in nature. He was an egalitarian when he knew the black community had no chance of living as equals alongside the white community. But when they started to demand full civil rights, he changed camps.
Watchman is also an intriguing book because it gives readers a rare insight into the way characters and storylines develop in fiction. The Atticus in Watchman was the starting point for the Atticus in Mockingbird. Clearly, Lee chose to completely re-write the character. Why? Many readers have suggested that Watchman shows how astute the editors at Harper Collins were. They knew that in the 1960s, a fantastic book about a white man standing up for the rights of a black man against all odds was more likely to sell than a more realistic book about how a white man in the American south, perceived by his daughter to be a racial equality hero, is actually just as racist as everyone else. And this is why Lee chose to re-write Atticus’ character. But this is mere conjecture.
Any review of Watchman can go on and on, because there is so much to analyse. Although it lacks the meat of Mockingbird, and is a very short and at times uninteresting read (but by no fault of Lee’s if we believe that it is merely a draft), many may prefer this work because it depicts a painful human reality and the complexity of human relationships.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.
Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline