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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee  (Harper Collins; 278 pp.)

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (Harper Collins; 278 pp.)

Harper Lee’s recently published novel Go Set A Watchman has questionable origins. Whether it is the first rough draft of the classic novel To Kill a Mocking Bird or an entirely new work, the book offers a jarring reality check for Lee’s prior audience. The majority of American students have at the very least watched the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and we hold the cast of characters within Maycomb fondly in our hearts. While many readers will try to put aside personal expectations for Scout, Jem, and Atticus, it is hard to read the new novel free from biases derived from reading To Kill a Mockingbird in eighth grade.

Go Set a Watchman takes place approximately twenty years after our last encounter with the Finches. Scout is no longer a young girl, but a cultured New York City woman who goes by Jean Louise. Jean Louise is returning home for her annual visit to Maycomb. From the start of Go Set a Watchman, Lee paints Jean Louise as an outsider in her home. Lee succeeds in creating an adult woman complex enough to reflect young Scout’s inquisitive and stubborn nature, but the other characters in the novel seem to be lacking development. If one read Go Set a Watchman without knowledge of To Kill a Mockingbird, the characters and plot would lack depth. When Jean returns home readers are introduced to Maycomb and the Finches in a jolting manner. Jean’s new love interest, Henry Clinton, takes the place of Jem as her logical, mature counterpart. Lee actually manages to introduce Henry thoroughly, which cannot be said for Atticus, Aunt Alexandra, or Dr. Finch. Of all the characters in Go Set a Watchman it is Henry, not Atticus that evokes empathy from the reader.

At the beginning of the novel Lee captures her audience by summarizing events that have occurred in the past twenty years. The first few chapters of the book transport the reader back into a time and place that, despite its differences, seems to mirror present day social and political atmosphere. Jean has changed, but Maycomb has not. This disparity sets the stage for a conflict that only starts to develop two hundred pages later. The first hundred pages of the novel feel as if Jean is wandering around Maycomb attempting to regain her bearings in the place that she grew up in. In the years Jean has lived in New York she appears to have forgotten the rules of etiquette in delicate southern society. Despite her Aunt Alexandra’s belligerent attempts to teach her the proper way to behave, Jean remains overtly critical of Maycombian ways. This portion of the novel slows the pace of the story and is mostly irrelevant to the plot as a whole.

Interspersed throughout these pages are flashbacks to Jean’s childhood. The naiveté and raw emotion Jean displays remind the reader of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee skillfully captures the nature of childhood affection in these anecdotes by emphasizing Jean’s (Scout’s) capacity to love anyone without prejudice. These unbridled affections remain with her until adulthood, especially in regards to Calpurnia. Jean’s memories provide context for new characters, but most importantly clarify how Jean could grow up to be color blind unlike the rest of Maycomb.

After enduring a hundred pages that drain the reader’s interest, the book finally begins to regain momentum. The novel suddenly shifts gears and the underlying conflict presents itself. Jean discovers that Henry and Atticus have been attending town council meetings. Not only is the council made up of immoral, dubious men, but the council also opposes the NAACP. Atticus is not impervious to racism after all. To make matters worse, Calpurnia, who we all remember as Scout’s black maid and mother figure, makes it clear that their relationship will never be the same when Jean visits. In a meager chapter Jean loses all faith in her father.

From this moment on, racial dialogue is the only priority of the novel. Jean is forced to confront almost everyone she loves in regards to their hypocritical, racist actions. When Jean finally faces Atticus, she dominates the conversation, and it seems that Lee misses an opportunity for valuable, intellectual dialogue. Jean manages to point out the faults with Atticus’ actions, but fails to offer a comprehensive understanding of the consequences of Roe v. Wade. Atticus, who is unfailingly loyal to the law, now wishes to slow the carrying out of justice since he believes blacks to be backward, infantile, and incapable of carrying out civil duties. Many readers will be just as disappointed in Atticus as they were in Jean. Though Atticus’ paternalistic perspective is disconcerting, one would do well to remember that it reflects a realistic and prevalent view of many Southerners. No one is perfect, and Lee makes Atticus a far more dynamic character by highlighting a flaw that haunted numerous otherwise ethical American citizens both Southern and otherwise. It is important to remember that despite Atticus’ new flaws he did raise a child with a conscience unfettered by southern prejudices.

In conclusion, if Lee was attempting to write a race novel she was too concerned with other petty aspects of southern society to accomplish her goal perfectly. However, Go Set a Watchman is worth reading for all who have patiently waited all these years for the conclusion of Scout’s story, and the last sixty pages of the book are thought provoking and brutally honest. Nevertheless, the climax and resolution feel disjointed from the first two hundred pages of the book. It is as if Lee could only embrace the consequences of confronting prejudice after wandering through her own memories and emerging with a perspective of detached reason. Despite the slow start, Lee is able to create a second coming-of-age novel that completes the ethical awakening that begins in the young mind of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Seven pages before completion, Lee redeems the flawed novel in a single sentence: “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”