Go Set a Watchman

© 2015 Mary Murphy & Company LLC

Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee

(HarperCollins, 2015)

Like the rest of America, I was anxiously awaiting the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman with very mixed emotions. First, I was excited to read another book by Lee, since she published only a few essays after To Kill a Mockingbird. Then, I was afraid that I would be disappointed that the book would not live up to my admiration of Mockingbird, a book I have taught and reread for many years. Last, I was concerned that the eighty-nine year old author, who had a stroke in 2007 and is deaf, reportedly suffering from short-term memory loss, and confined to a wheelchair in an assisted living center in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, was being taken advantage of by people she trusted who had much to gain once this unpublished manuscript hit the best-seller lists. Somebody would be making a LOT of money off of the reclusive author.

None of my fears materialized. Not only did I enjoy the book, but I was pleased to discover that according to the BBC News (March 13, 2015) that the Alabama Securities Commission, who investigates fraud against the elderly, decided Lee was cognizant of and not pressured into publishing the book. Other articles about her attest to her understanding of the publication; that she may not remember details from one time to the next does not negate her understanding of it at the moment. At least, I hope this is all true. As for living up to To Kill a Mockingbird, I believe that it adds depth to the characters of Scout and Atticus, mirrors well the turmoil of the early 1950s, and contributes autobiographical insight into the author. Although it is not a polished work, it has has much to offer as a companion to Mockingbird.

I will not replay the plot in detail as reviews of Go Set a Watchman clog the internet. At my last check, there were nearly three million “results” in my Google search! In essence, the novel narrates the story of Jean Louise, “Scout,” as an adult returning on her yearly visit to her father and her hometown where she must decide if she wants to marry her lifelong friend, if she can tolerate the prejudice of the South, if she can love and respect her father again, and whether she wants to stay in Maycomb or retreat once more to New York City. To Kill a Mockingbird is a buldungsroman,  the rite of passage of a nine-year old girl who learns about the coexistence good and evil and the importance of walking in another man’s shoes before making judgments. Scout realizes that “there are just one kind of folks. Folks.”All of these moral lessons she learns from her father. However, life is not a non-stop flight to maturity but a voyage filled with turbulence. Go Set a Watchman continues this maturation process.

Jean Louise’s admiration for her father and his moral beliefs, which she has accepted as her own, are shaken when she discovers that he is a member of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, a group of leading citizens who believe that Blacks are inferior to whites, and who support segregation. Moreover, he supports states rights and Jeffersonian beliefs that “full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly. A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man” (244).  Atticus believes that “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people” (246). Jean Louise crumbles emotionally. “I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me,” she rants (248). “I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anyone in my life and never will again” (250).

Complicating Jean Louise’s emotional turmoil is the marriage proposal from Henry Clinton, a young man who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps and is now working as a lawyer with her father. She grew up with the dictum, “Love who you will but marry your own kind” (9), and when the novel opens, she views Hank as her “own kind.” As the novel progresses, however, the relationship becomes more complicated when Aunt Alexandra opposes their marriage. “Henry is not and never will be suitable for you. We Finches do not marry the children of redneck white trash, which is exactly what Henry’s parents were when they were born and were all their lives. . . . Fine a boy as he is, the trash won’t wash out of him” (36-37). Even her uncle Dr. Finch explains, “he’s not your kind. . . . I’m not going to argue with you over the relative merits of trash–” (273). That Henry, too, is a member of the Citizen’s Council contributes to her confusion.

The novel climaxes when Jean Louise confronts and denounces her father, and then packs to return to New York.  As she is loading her suitcase into the car, her uncle arrives and attempts to dissuade her, but she is insolent. He strikes her with a backhanded slap that sends her reeling, physically and emotionally. Dr. Finch gives her a shot of whiskey, and tries to help her understand her father. He explains, “you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings. . .  You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers” (265). Standing up to her father was a major turning point in her self-actualization, one Atticus deemed necessary for her personal growth. He was willing to sacrifice her love for him for her own well-being. As her uncle explains, “He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being” (266). Jean Louise’s denunciation was necessary for her to begin functioning as an individual. “I love you” were the last words he spoke to her after their argument, and now she knows how much (253).

Fortuitously, my September 2015 issue of The Atlantic arrived just as I was completing the novel. The article “The Coddling of the American Mind” helps explicate the confrontation between Jean Louise and her father. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that currently in education, students tend to be “protected rather than challenged” and that this process is both “infantilizing and anti-intellectual” (52). They explain: “There’s a saying common in education. Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding” (45). Jean Louise’s anger, even her renunciation of her father, was necessary to transform her into a more reasoning adult, one who could put herself in another person’s shoes and walk around in them a while. Watchman would be an excellent text for today’s students. It would help them realize that although they may not agree with a person’s beliefs, perhaps even those of their own parents, they can understand them. “If students graduate believing that they can learn nothing from people they dislike or from whom they disagree,” state Lukianoff and Haidt, “we will have done them a great intellectual disservice” (61). Rather than let Jean Louise continue in her own narrow biases, her father and her uncle conspire to open her mind.

Next, Jean Louise must decide where home will be for her. Dr. Finch accuses her of turning and running when she is confronted by bigotry, and asks her if she ever thought about coming back home. “You may not know it,” he says, “but there’s room for you down here. . . . The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you” (272). When she drives her uncle to his home, as she departs she hears him singing two lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore  (1887). They describe the young Jean Louise well: “exceedingly odd” and “suffering much from spleen and vapors.”  She responds with the lines that they only “cut respectable capers” now (275). The ending lines of the song hint at what Jean Louise’s choice will be, the same choice that Harper Lee herself made in returning to Monroeville. “My taste for the wandering life is waning/ A moderate livelihood we’re gaining/ The duties are dull but I’m not complaining.”

The last decision that Jean Louise must make is whether or not to marry Henry Clinton. When she asks Dr. Finch what she should do about him, he knows her heart and says, “Let him down easy. . . . he’s not your kind” (273). This is the most difficult part of the ending to accept as a reader, for throughout the novel, she has been railing against the bigotry of her hometown. Although she considers herself color-blind, does she succumb to her family’s unyielding class prejudices? However, from the beginning, she has had doubts about Henry. When he first picks her up at the train, she reflects that she was “almost in love with him,” then realizes that “Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal” and decides to remain a spinster for the time being (15). Although the readers realize that the novel will not end happily ever after in a marriage between Jean Louise and Henry, her reasons remain ambiguous.

Readers familiar with the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird may have trouble accepting the beliefs of the seventy-two year old lawyer of Go Set a Watchman, just like Jean Louise does. In Mockingbird, Attticus believes in equal rights for all and special privileges for none, and he ignores public censure for defending a black man falsely accused of rape. How could he defend a Black man yet believe they are inferior? How could he believe in equal rights yet still be a segregationist? To me,  Atticus’s actions are understandable when you consider that first, he was assigned to defend Tom Robinson by the judge; second, as an attorney, he believed in following the letter of the law; and third, he was a strong proponent of the tenth amendment, of states’ rights. It was not so much that he was against Blacks being equal, but that he was against the government telling the states what to do rather than letting each state decide for itself, especially after the Supreme Court’s Brown Vs. Board of Education ruling which declared that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. States Rights is still a controversial issue today!

 © 2015 Mary Murphy & Company LLCFor me as a writer (and literature professor), Harper Lee’s literary allusions add interest and deeper meaning to the narrative, one that will make many English teachers salivate. For example, Lee repeatedly refers to Robert Browning’s long poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” This reference is significant because it concerns a young man who is on a quest for the “Dark Tower” although the reader never really learns the tower’s significance. He wanders through gloomy and difficult terrain, discouraged, afraid, and longing for home, until he reaches his goal and sounds his horn. The tragedy is that no one hears his horns or understands him, making his quest appear meaningless. The cultural setting of Browning’s dramatic monologue echoes that of Watchman. “Childe Roland” is set during the Industrial Revolution, a time when many saw increased urbanization and a moralistic decay of Victorian society and mirrors the turbulence of the South during the 1950s. Moreover, Darwin’s new theories of evolution, new to the Victorians, were still upheld by the Citizens’ Council and shared in their pamphlet, The Black Plague. Some critics believe that the poem is an exploration of the mind; if so, it would clearly parallel Jean Louise’s emotional turmoil.

Lee also references Dorian Gray, the protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), the story of a man who surrenders his soul so that he can remain young and handsome with his portrait aging instead of him. When Jean Louise comes down to breakfast after the revelation of her father’s prejudice, she is afraid to look at him, afraid that he would have changed in her eyes. However, she realizes that “He had not changed. His face was the same as always” (156). Jean Louise is the one who has aged.

Then, there is the obvious Biblical reference of the title of the novel from Isiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” In the article, “Go Set a Watchman: What Does Harper Lee’s Book Title Mean?” Greg Garrison  quotes historian Wayne Flynt, a Baptist minister and friend of Harper Lee. He explains that setting a watchman means that “Somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town.” Flynt explains that Lee was raised in a Bible-reading family and that she loved the elegance of the language of the King James Version. According to him, “Isaiah was a prophet. God had set him as a watchman over Israel. It’s really God speaking to the Hebrews, saying what you need to do is set a watchman, to set you straight, to keep you on the right path. What more elegant title could there be?” Perhaps this would hint at Jean Louise’s probable choice of returning to Maycomb to fulfill her uncle’s invitation, “we need some more of you” (272). She could serve as the Watchman.

The book does have flaws typical of beginning writers (after all it was the “parent” of To Kill a Mockingbird according to Lee). The sections and flashbacks occasionally do not flow smoothly, for the reader has no way of knowing what was cut from the manuscript and used in Mockingbird. Moreover, Lee slips into the Telling Not Showing trap in her lengthy conversations with Dr. Finch and even her father. Fortunately, the novel also has much to recommend it. Lee’s descriptive style and especially her characterizations reveal the people, culture, and setting of the fictional Maycomb with insight and understanding. She has truly learned to walk in other peoples shoes before judging them.




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One thought on “Go Set a Watchman

  1. Right on, right on! The book is not “polished,” as you say, but it has much to offer. I am so very glad she wrote Mockingbird, but Watchman shows a realistic picture of a grown-up Scout, very much a product of her times and experiences.

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