Review: “Go Set a Watchman”

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Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

You won’t envision Gregory Peck when you read what Atticus Finch has to say to his daughter late in this novel:

“You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?” (p. 242)

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” (p. 245)

“Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people… . They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.” (pp. 246–247)

The hard work of reconciling this picture of Atticus Finch with the Atticus Finch that Peck portrays in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird raises an essential question about this newly released novel by Harper Lee: Is it possible to review Go Set a Watchman without reference to To Kill a Mockingbird?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try.

In Watchman, 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she has been living for five years. She comes home for two weeks every year to see her father, Atticus Finch, whom she adores, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Henry Clinton, whom she has known since childhood. She usually travels by plane, but this year she takes the train. The view as she approaches her destination allows her to reconnect with the place where she grew up: “She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful” (p. 6).

Jean Louise rolls her eyes over the Southern propriety of her Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, who never passes up an opportunity to explain that Jean Louise should stay home in Maycomb, get married and have children, and take care of her aging father. But she loses patience when her aunt invites some of the young women she grew up with over for coffee. After living in New York, Jean Louise cannot tolerate the narrow-mindedness of women who define themselves only in terms of their husbands and their children.

This scene crystallizes Jean Louise’s internal conflict: She loves and respects her father, but she no longer shares the beliefs and values that underlie the Southern way of life that he and Maycomb epitomize. Atticus, now 72, has always been her moral beacon. but she is shocked and disgusted when she sneaks into the courthouse and witnesses a political meeting at which both Atticus and Henry denounce Negroes and Jews. Jean Louise sneaks back out of the courthouse repulsed and sickened by the revelations of her father’s hypocrisy.

This pivotal scene of the coming-of-age story occurs very late in the novel. But it’s not just the novel’s pacing that’s off. The text doesn’t adequately prepare us for the depth of Jean Louise’s revulsion. We know that she has always loved and deeply respected her father for the values he taught her. So why is she so astonished now? How is it possible that she didn’t know her father held these views? She discusses her concerns with both her father and her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, afterwards, but this backward attempt at explaining what should have come before her moment of realization falls flat. And the explanation is given in terms of political theorizing that doesn’t adequately address the emotional nature of her reaction.

The writing in Watchman is adequate though uninspired. There are several flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood that are more interesting than the present time of the book but that also do not cohere thematically with the novel as a whole. The late climax and quick resolution that doesn’t effectively resolve matters leave the reader jarringly unsatisfied.

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Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThat’s my review of Watchman without reference to Mockingbird. But it leaves out one question that cannot be ignored: How do we reconcile the Atticus Finch of Watchman with the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird?

Not to be flip, but there’s only one possible answer: We don’t. These novels are two separate works. Even if we accept that Watchman is an early draft of what later became Mockingbird, each novel should be read and evaluated separately, in its own right. Comparing them might say something about Harper Lee or about the two different time periods presented in the books, but the publication of Watchman does not change To Kill a Mockingbird at all.