I’ve been reading Harper Lee’s book ‘Go Set a Watchman’, and I’ve only recently put it down. I’ve been really conflicted about this book, and even as I write this post, I’m not sure if I like it or not.
The trouble with Watchman is that it uses the same characters as Lee’s earlier work, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and while the characters are more-or-less the same, the narrator has changed, from the child Scout to the adult Jean-Louise. This issue is further exacerbated by people wanting to look at Watchman as a sequel to Mockingbird. However, looking at Watchman as a sequel introduces some retcon issues.
Watchman has a total of four paragraphs that narrate approximately the story in Mockingbird. However, in Watchman, the accused is a relation to Calpurnia, and Atticus successfully acquits him; which is very different from the Mockingbird version of Tom, who ends up being convicted, and ultimately killed.
Because of this retcon, I decided to treat Watchman as a separate book by its own right, and not as a sequel to Mockingbird. Therefore, for the entirety of the book, I had the very hard task of shutting out everything I knew about Scout, Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, Dill, and everyone else, and re-learn these characters from scratch. I had read a tonne out outrage on the interwebs about Atticus being a racist, and I really did not want my knowledge of Atticus as the perfect person, or Gregory Peck portraying the character into the way, and ruining what could be a perfect story.
In the end, I’m convinced that the characters are the same, although the writing is decidedly not. Mockingbird had a rhythm, it had a flow through it that was effortless for the reader. It felt authentic, and resonated with most of us in a way that Watchman really does not. Watchman feels clunky, amateurish, and really subpar. For instance, Jem’s death is just sprung on us. Now, I would totally accept this, as Jem really is a character that is just present as a memory in Watchman; however, I did expect something more on how his death affected Jean-Louise. To me, a simple ‘Jem died’ sounds something more like what Rushdie may do with a minor character, and then introduce a ridiculous story of how the character died, and never talk about the character again. On the other hand, to do this with a character that does have some significance in the story feels rather flat.
The sloppiness in writing does not end there. Until we end up with Atticus and Henry (Hank) in the Maycomb Citizens’ Council next to a racist, we haven’t been invested enough in the characters to feel the full force of Jean-Louise’s disgust at Atticus behaving in such a way. Then, a flashback tells the four paragraphs that would go on to become Mockingbird. Are we really expected to love the character of Atticus through a flashback?
Frankly, I think the trouble with Watchman is that it does not tell a story. On the other hand, characters monologue their own political convictions, which I’m sure are proxy for how Harper Lee herself felt. There’s a lot of exposition on why the South went to war, and that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but on the Federal government trampling on states’ rights. There’s talk on the Supreme Court decision, and how that decision tramples on the Tenth Amendment. These could very well be in a collection of speeches, and not very great ones at that. Will I feel moved in any way, after hearing someone just talk their views and walking off the stage? After a reference to “Childe Roland” when Jean-Louise asks her uncle why Maycomb has become so intolerant? Harper Lee sticks to the Childe Roland reference, by never really telling us how Jean-Louise finds peace with the Maycomb people, with Atticus, and Hank; she just magically does after being slapped by her uncle.
There is a coming of age story in Watchman, and that is Jean-Louise finally breaking her conscience from that of Atticus, and becoming her own lady, but that part is also botched up so much that we don’t see it coming along, but it’s not a surprise either like the final reveal of Boo Radley in Mockingbird.
This is not to say that Watchman does not have its moments. It was deeply amusing for me to find that Harper Lee, through Jean-Louise, thinks that ‘The course of English Literature would have been decidedly different had Mr. Wordsworth owned a power mower’. However, such moments are few and far between.
Perhaps I really need to be invested in the story of the South, to understand American racism before I can truly appreciate the book. However, I don’t get the racism. It just sounds wrong, and I don’t know what I want to think of a book that relies on the reader understanding racism as something more than just a horrible bigoted idea. Upon re-reading the book, I see a whole lot of prejudice and hatred, right from the first part when Hank tells Jean-Louise that while black people have cars, they aren’t responsible, and drive without a licence or insurance. This thread is resumed when Zeebo’s boy runs over Mr. Healy and kills him. Atticus, on learning this, wants to plead him guilty so that the case does not fall in the ‘wrong hands’ of lawyers who actually want to defend the accused.
The most disappointing part of the book for me was that it felt like reading a cheap paperback. Good books have a flow to them, when words come one after another in a rhythm to tell a story that is stretched out from beginning to end. The writing here feels like an amateur writer, it sounds simple (in a bad way), haphazard, and misses a story to it. The story exists if we factor in the character arcs from Mockingbird – even so, there are differences that would make for a very jarring read.
On the whole, Watchman leaves me deeply unsatisfied. The book raises questions about the South and the culture, but does not provide answers at any point. Neither does the story account for much; a lot of it is exposition and flashbacks that don’t really contribute much by way of telling a story or establishing a character. Finally, I find it really hard to figure out Atticus as well, a person who joins the Klan just to find out who is behind the masks, and joins the Citizens’ Council just to fight against the Supreme Court trampling on the Tenth Amendment, or arguing that the black race doesn’t deserve full civil rights yet. I must congratulate the person who told Harper Lee to go write this again building a story from the point of view of the child Scout, and expanding the four paragraphs into ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
I would have loved to love another book written by Harper Lee. ‘Go Set a Watchman’ just isn’t it.
Thanks to Dr. Sudha Shastri and Harshit Sahay for their comments and feedback, and for enabling me to better sort my thoughts based on our thoughtful discussions. This is an updated version of the original post published 12th March 2016. While no content has been deleted, I’ve added a few paragraphs to better express my opinion.