At a Glance Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman narrates the homecoming of Jean Louise Finch as she faces a community rife with racial tension, an old friend turned love interest, and a father who no longer seems as perfect as she once believed him to be.
Jean Louise Finch returns to her childhood hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, for what she expects will be a typical visit. Soon, however, her growing attraction to an old friend named Hank begins to complicate her stay. Her difficulties grow even further with her discovery that both Hank and her father are part of an organization dedicated to preserving racial segregation. Jean Louise, who has always known her father as a champion of civil rights, feels betrayed. No longer sure whom she can trust, Jean Louise lashes out against the people she loves and condemns them for tolerating racism. Gradually, through conversations with her uncle Jack, Jean Louise learns to accept that her father is imperfect and human, capable of doing bad things as well as good.
Written by: Harper Lee
Type of Work: Coming-of-age novel
First Published: 2015
Setting: Maycomb, Alabama
Main Characters: Jean Louise (Scout) Finch; Atticus Finch; Henry (Hank) Clinton; Alexandra Finch Hancock; Dr. John Hale (Jack) Finch
Major Thematic Topics: Racism; identity; heroes and role models; human imperfection; coming of age
Major Symbols: Low car doors; the Doxology; the ice cream parlor (where Jean Louise’s house used to stand); the Maycomb courthouse
The three most important aspects of Go Set a Watchman: One important aspect of Go Set a Watchman is its complex relationship to Harper Lee’s earlier novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. Although it is set almost two decades after To Kill a Mockingbird and was published more than fifty years later, Go Set a Watchman was written first. The two books share common characters, a common setting, and even several passages (mostly descriptions of Maycomb or brief vignettes from Jean Louise’s childhood) that appear the same, word for word, in both books. However, the tone each book adopts and the world each book describes are significantly different. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus appears fully committed to the cause of racial reconciliation, sacrificing his reputation in the white community to defend a black man named Tom Robinson in a trial that he ultimately loses. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus has previously won a trial defending a nameless black man; however, his belief that change must come slowly and that the civil rights movement is dangerous and meddlesome tempers his desire to treat all races equally. These differences have led to disputes between readers who believe that the two versions of Atticus ought to be read as different characters and readers who think of Go Set a Watchman’s Atticus as providing greater nuance to the simpler Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.
A second and closely related important aspect of Go Set a Watchman is its emphasis on the importance of humanizing heroes. In the novel, Jean Louise has spent her whole life idealizing Atticus and using him as a standard for her own ethics. Seeing Atticus in the company of men she knows to be racists and realizing that he is not as staunch a supporter of equal rights as she once believed forces Jean Louise to separate her own conscience from her father’s. (Ironically, many readers have similarly idealized Atticus Finch and found the notion of his being anything less than perfect to be intolerable.) Although it pains Jean Louise to lose her childhood vision of her father, she comes of age as an independent thinker. As her frequent memories from childhood and puberty emphasize, growing up is a layered and complex process that happens bit by bit.
Finally, the novel offers an important look at the nature of racism in the 1950s’ South. Whereas racism is easy to identify and condemn in To Kill a Mockingbird, the lines between right and wrong are not as clear in Go Set a Watchman. In this novel, people cannot easily be divided into racists and non-racists. Instead, everyone bears the marks of having lived in a racist society although characters reflect this systemic racism in different ways and to varying degrees. Go Set a Watchman focuses not only on blatant manifestations of racism but also on insidious cultural patterns. In this sense, the novel is surprisingly well suited to the time in which it has finally been published, as a supposedly “post-racial” America wrestles with residual racial tensions that refuse to disappear.