Review: Go Set A Watchman Is A Tragedy

Image courtesy of HarperCollins
Jean Louise Finch’s journey in Go Set a Watchman begins on a winding train. Some things have changed: The protagonist we once knew as Scout lives in New York City now, black families have television antennas, and white families have air conditioners. She is collected at the station by her childhood friend Henry “Hank” Clinton, who would like to graduate to being the love of her life. Jean Louise's golden older brother Jem is dead, killed by the same heart condition that took their mother. Uncle Jack has come back to town with his aged cat, and so has Aunt Alexandra. Aside from his crippling rheumatoid arthritis, Atticus Finch seems to be the same paragon of honor from To Kill a Mockingbird. That is, until Jean Louise uncovers a hidden truth that will undermine her faith in him forever.

As the story unfolds, we find out that the white man who defended a black man in 1930s Alabama is not only a racist, but a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who believes blacks need to stay in their “place.” He opposes desegregation and the presence of the NAACP in the state, and is actively working to maintain the status quo. It’s a cruel plot twist for both Jean Louise and generations of readers who were raised to revere this hero of American literature. The Atticus rewrite forces us to call cherished Mockingbird memories into question, and wonder whether or not he was ever the man we believed he was to begin with.

That’s not the only ugliness of this novel, either. Where Mockingbird is beautifully written, Watchman mostly falls flat. The story plods along for the first near-100 pages while Jean Louise settles into predictable Maycomb antics. The arrival of the central crisis — i.e. the discovery of Atticus’ bigotry — arrives suddenly, gracelessly. It’s only when Jean Louise begins combing through stories from her childhood that the book begins to evoke the elegance of Mockingbird. Which makes sense: Watchman is the discarded draft for the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic. It was always the lesser text. This is the proof.

In the scenes that follow Jean Louise’s realization, her world falls apart. She takes to her bed, turning away visitors before deciding to talk things over with Uncle Jack, with whom she has a bizarrely theatrical conversation, which seems to touch on everything but the crucial subject at hand. The plot culminates in a wrenching father-daughter discussion that, little by little, reveals just how deeply Atticus' racism goes.

“Honey, you do not seem to understand that 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,” Atticus tells her toward the end of his patronizing monologue. Crushed and disillusioned, Jean Louise goes tearing from his office, intending to leave Maycomb for good. Yet, as she's attempting to flee, the back of Uncle Jack’s hand intercepts her. The two talk things over, and soon come to the ready-made conclusion that Jean Louise understands what her own beliefs are and has become her own person. Easy as that.

It’s a convenient, facile ending so beneath the complexity of To Kill a Mockingbird that it’s easy to guess why Lee might have wanted to keep this original draft away from public eyes for 55 years. That it’s become public now — when the author is, according to many reports, of diminished mental capacity — is tragic for more reasons than one.

Go Set a Watchman, published by HarperCollins, is now available. It is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee’s second published book.

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