First of all, I’m going to ignore the controversy surrounding this book’s publication. Enough has been written about that. If you’re interested in reading about that aspect of the book, go here.
If you are averse to spoilers, you may want to stop reading now.
Go Set a Watchman tells the story of Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch coming home from New York to visit her aging father, Atticus Finch, in Maycomb, Alabama. She’s in her mid-twenties. He’s in his early seventies. These are the same two characters from To Kill a Mockingbird which is set about twenty years earlier, and is a book I have both read and taught several times. Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is a personal hero of mine – a man who stands up against injustice and defends the undefendable, even though it costs him both in terms of finances, in terms of safety, and in terms of reputation.
The first half of the book seems like a standard “kid from the country who moved to the city comes home to catch up with everyone” type of story. Jean-Louise meets up with various people from her time growing up in Maycomb – her on-again off-again boyfriend who she contemplates marrying every time she visits home, her aunt who she argues with but who shares a mutual respect with her, the now retired live-in servant Calpurnia who helped raise her, her uncle with whom she shares a love of literature, and of course her father.
The novel is really a series of conversations with the people she visits in which we as readers are able to see the actual dialogue as well as the thoughts Jean-Louise has during them interspersed with some flashbacks to her childhood, often including Jem, her deceased brother, and Dill, their childhood friend and neighbor, both who are important characters in Mockingbird, as well as Henry, the aforementioned boyfriend who does not appear in the previous book but seems to be someone who entered Scout’s life when she was a teenager and who now works for her father’s law firm.
These conversations show how removed Jean-Louise is from Maycomb county, and the flashbacks show how she is still connected through her past. This structure is very effective in showing the complicated relationship she has with her hometown.
Her conversations with Henry show that she is fairly indecisive and has trouble with the idea of commitment to a relationship with someone who she no longer has much in common with despite the fact that she loves him. With her aunt Alexandra, we see that she is still a tomboy at heart and never really fit in with her peers in Maycomb, who all strive to be the kind of lady Alexandra is. With her uncle, we see that she is a fierce debater but is not an invincible one.
The conversations with Calpurnia and Atticus come after the pivotal moment of the novel. Jean-Louise goes to a sort of town hall meeting to see what her father and her boyfriend are up to since both are involved in local politics. What happens at the meeting completely changes her perspective of them for the rest of the story and sets off basically a second set of these one-on-one conversations that take up the latter half of the book.
At the town hall meeting, there are many white men from around Maycomb all listening to a speaker who is denouncing the black population of the area and the NAACP for trying to help them improve their situations through legal help and I’m sure other means. Atticus is among those who seem to be in agreement with him. This is the same man who in Mockingbird defended a black man accused of raping a white woman in court in front of the whole town.
Jean-Louise has idolized her father for her whole life as a paragon of fairness, justice, and reason. She panics after seeing this meeting and spends the rest of the story trying to figure out why he might have been there, all the time hoping against hope that she misinterpreted his reasons. She goes to her uncle, the only man in town who seems to have not gone to the meeting, but her hopes are dashed as he explains that Atticus is trying to defend a traditional white southern way of life and is against the idea that black people should have civil rights. He even admits to her that, at one point in his life, Atticus even joined the Ku Klux Klan. He also goes on to iterate some of ideology of states’ rights and gives some very inaccurate statistics about slavery in the South leading up to the Civil War.
In her panic, she finds Henry to ask why he was at the meeting. He tells her that he’s expected to live a certain way in Maycomb even if it means doing things that go against his beliefs. She tells him that there’s no way she can marry him because he is a hypocrite.
Finally, she confronts Atticus, her hero, my hero. This chapter was one of the hardest I’ve ever read in my life. I wanted to, like Scout, start screaming at Atticus. His calm explanations for the reason of his racism are infuriating. He doesn’t see black people as people. He’s worried that they are going to infiltrate politics and public life. He doesn’t think that uneducated people should be able to vote, and he doesn’t think that black people should be allowed to be educated in the same way white people are. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. He has even by this point in the novel taken on the case of a black youth (Calpurnia’s grandson, in fact) not because he wants to actually defend him like he did Tom in Mockingbird but so that the NAACP lawyers don’t get a chance to.
Scout, like me, is devastated and decides to leave – to go back to New York. She’s then confronted and slapped in the face by her uncle which for some reason calms her down (this was probably the most baffling part of the whole book to me) and gets her to go back home and talk with Atticus again. She seems to learn to accept that her father is a racist and a hypocrite and decides that she loves him anyway.
The point seems to have been to “set your own watchman” or “develop your own conscience” and accept that other people don’t always think the same way you do. However, the fact that the book and the characters within paint a picture of Jean-Louise being the closed-minded “bigot” (yes, they actually call her that) who needs to accept their way of thinking is my biggest issue. Yes, I agree that we should tolerate others’ ideas, but is that still true when theirs are the ones that are intolerant? I have had conversations of my own with people who are intolerant of others, and I have been in the position of Jean-Louise who cannot understand why those who are the closed-minded and conservative are so averse to progress and tolerance.
I get that we should still love our family and friends even when they disappoint us. That seems to be the more reasonable message of the story. It’s just very challenging to be able to do so when the disappointment doesn’t come from a mistake that was made but a deliberate and long-lasting choice to do or believe something that’s as horrible as the arguments being made by the men in this story.
Go Set a Watchman is the antithesis to the kind of story you would expect from Harper Lee based admittedly on the only other story she ever wrote that was published. Like I said earlier, I don’t want to get into the details of the controversy surrounding its publication, but I will say that it has truly tarnished a character that stood as a representation of the kind of person I wanted to be in Atticus Finch. I am very saddened by the way this character is portrayed in this book. I kind of wish I had never read it.