biased observer

A Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

Unlike many American high school students, I was never assigned to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird before coming to college. It was not until last summer that I read the story in anticipation of the release of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, published 55 years after her first. I fell in love with the defiant voice of Scout and her various exploits with Jem and Dill in Mockingbird, and I was eager to read a new story that, according to a plethora of news articles, offered a more honest and nuanced version of Atticus Finch. Unfortunately, Go Set a Watchman has failed to live up to its hype.

Go Set a Watchman is marketed as a sequel, but according to an article in the New York Times the book is really an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lee originally wrote about Scout as an adult, but her editor suggested that she focus on Scout’s childhood instead.  For this reason, many plot details in Go Set a Watchman are different from those in To Kill a Mockingbird.  The circumstances surrounding the famous trial of the first book are altered.  Some new characters have been introduced.  Maycomb is much the same, but it lacks the charm it had when viewed through the eyes of a child.

The story begins as a grown-up Scout (now called “Jean Louise”) returns to Maycomb after living in New York City. She is reunited with her Aunt Alexandra, her father Atticus Finch, her new boyfriend Henry Clinton, and her uncle Jack Finch.  After a few cozy days at home, Jean Louise sneaks into a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizen’s Council, a white supremacist organization.  She is horrified to discover that Atticus is a member of the Council who believes that black Southerners “are still in their childhood as a people.”  The rest of the book explores Jean Louise’s reaction to this unpleasant discovery of Atticus’s true nature.

In terms of pure mechanics, there are distracting problems with the novel’s writing.  Lee frequently switches between different points of view, often within a single paragraph, which left me confused about who was speaking or thinking in a given sentence. The book also rambles with backstories and details that have nothing to do with the plot. There is one particularly memorable chapter involving a flashback to Jean Louise’s first school dance, in which she wore a pair of fake breasts. Although the breasts were lost and then found with relative ease, it took me considerably more time to reorient myself to the novel’s present once the flashback was over.

More importantly, there are flaws with the way in which the characters are portrayed. Anton Chekhov wrote that the author should not be “the judge of his character(s) and their conversations, but only an unbiased observer.”  Lee fails to be an unbiased observer in Go Set a Watchman; it is clear that she is on the side of Jean Louise. This makes for a boring and unrealistic world with characters lacking depth and complexity.

There is one scene in particular in which Lee seems to be trying to force the reader to form negative opinions of everyone except Jean Louise. Aunt Alexandra hosts a gathering with the ladies of Maycomb while Jean Louise quietly judges everyone.  The problem with this scene is not that Jean Louise holds a negative opinion of her old neighbors, but that the women are not portrayed with any nuance.  Lee describes how “the Newlyweds chattered smugly of their Bobs and Michaels,” and the women’s dialogue is reduced to short phrases separated by ellipses: “When Jerry was two months old he looked up at me and said… toilet training should really begin when… he was christened he grabbed Mr. Stone by the hair and Mr. Stone… wets the bed now.”  The scene suggests that we “thinking” people (who are presumably the only ones who will read this book in the first place) can pat ourselves on the back for not being shallow like these women, and we can amuse ourselves by observing these women’s strange behavior.

In contrast, Lee portrays Aunt Alexandra much more effectively in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Aunt Alexandra is similar to the Maycomb women in that she embraces values that subordinate women and holds racist and classist views.  However, these qualities are shown through her actions, not through other characters’ dismissive judgments, and Aunt Alexandra occasionally shows a more compassionate side that complicates her character. To Kill a Mockingbird allows people to make their own judgments, while Go Set a Watchman forces an opinion on the reader.

Lee also takes a side when Jean Louise is arguing about racism with Atticus. Tolerant people should feel morally aligned with Jean Louise’s point of view, but as readers we should not feel manipulated by the author to take a side. As Chekhov pointed out, the author should portray people as human beings instead of using characters to make a point. Much of the dialogue in Go Set a Watchman feels forced, as if the characters are merely mouthpieces for Lee to present an argument about American racism.  When Uncle Jack and Jean Louise talk about Atticus, Uncle Jack tells his niece, “The time-honored, common-law concept of property—a man’s interest in and duties to that property—has become almost extinct. People’s attitudes toward the duties of a government have changed.” Uncle Jack’s dialogue sounds more like a political speech than a conversation.

One aspect of the book that I enjoyed was a flashback to Jean Louise’s childhood. In just a few sentences, Lee transitions from the flat world of Jean Louise’s Maycomb to a delightful story about Scout, Jem, and Dill, in a time when lemonade “was a daily occurrence” and the three friends always “found the remainder of the morning lying emptily before them.”  This part of the book shares many similarities with To Kill a Mockingbird, with beautiful descriptions of the Southern landscape and sly humor involving mischievous children. More importantly, the characters in this brief flashback are as real and complicated as they are in the original book.  It is easy to see why Lee’s editor suggested that she recast her original story as a story about Jean Louise’s childhood.

The end of the book offers an insightful conclusion about growing up and forming an individual conscience separate from that of those you admire. Jean Louise’s uncle tells her that “every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.” It is disappointing that Harper Lee could not translate that lesson into another literary masterpiece.