Book Summary of Go Set a Watchman
Go Set a Watchman covers four primary periods in the life of Jean Louise Finch:
1. Childhood Memories
Although Go Set a Watchman is set when Jean Louise is 26 years old, her flashbacks to childhood make up a significant portion of the novel. Jean Louise’s mother died when Jean Louise was 2 years old, and her father, Atticus, and her family’s black cook, Calpurnia, raised her. As a young girl, Jean Louise spent most of her time playing games of make believe with her brother, Jem, and their friend Dill. During this childhood, Atticus defended a black man accused of rape in a high-profile trial.
When Jean Louise reached puberty, she found herself needing to rely on someone other than Atticus for the first time. Because she didn’t have a mother and never received a systematic sex education, she was misled by one of the girls at her school into thinking that kissing causes pregnancy. After a boy kissed her against her will, she thought she was pregnant and tried to commit suicide, but Hank rescued her. After this, Calpurnia gave her the sex education she never got from her mother.
Hank proved to be a hero once again when Jean Louise attended her first high school dance. She wore a pair of false breasts underneath her dress that slipped out of place while she was dancing. Hank noticed and took her outside, where he threw the offending “falsies” into the darkness. The next day, the high school principal was furious after finding the falsies hanging from a school billboard and threatened to punish the owner. Hank cleverly managed to keep both himself and Jean Louise from getting into trouble.
2. Homecoming (Saturday)
Jean Louise travels by train from New York City to her childhood home of Maycomb, Alabama. At the train station, she is met by Hank, who has always loved her and asks her to marry him on their drive home. Jean Louise refuses but agrees to go on a date with him. They return home, where Jean Louise sees her father, Atticus, and her aunt Alexandra. The four of them make small talk, briefly discussing politics and recent court rulings undoing racial segregation in the South.
After Hank and Atticus leave for work, Alexandra tells Jean Louise that Hank would not be a suitable husband because he is of a lower social status. Alexandra’s prohibition makes Jean Louise more interested in marrying Hank than she has ever been. She and Hank go on a date that night, visiting a dock that the Finch family used to own. They flirt and push each other into the water.
3. Disenchantment (Sunday)
The next morning, town gossips claim that Hank and Jean Louise were swimming naked the night before. Alexandra is furious that Jean Louise has damaged the family’s reputation, but Atticus doesn’t mind. They attend church, where the music director, Herbert Jemson, tries to play new music because a Northerner told him to. Uncle Jack chides Herbert and insists that traditional Southern hymns are better.
After Sunday dinner, Hank and Atticus go to a citizens’ council meeting at the courthouse. Jean Louise finds a pamphlet about the inferiority of black people in the living room, and Alexandra tells her that it belongs to Atticus. Troubled, Jean Louise goes to the courthouse and eavesdrops on the meeting, where a pro-segregation speaker talks about black people by using the same offensive language as the pamphlet, and Atticus and Hank sit there seeming to approve of his words. Jean Louise can’t believe that her father and Hank would be part of such a group—especially not Atticus, who has always fought for justice for blacks.
Shocked by what she has seen and heard, Jean Louise wanders out of the courthouse and to the site of her childhood home, where an ice cream parlor now stands. She buys a pint of ice cream, eats it, and vomits. Then she goes home and goes straight to bed, asking Alexandra to cancel her date with Hank and to tell him she is having her period.
4. Coming of Age (Monday)
Jean Louise wakes up early on Monday and mows the lawn until her aunt yells at her to stop waking the neighbors. Hank comes over during breakfast to tell Atticus that Calpurnia’s grandson Frank hit and killed a white man while driving his father Zeebo’s car. Atticus says he will take the case to keep the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from getting involved. Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, hoping to console her and to be consoled in return. Calpurnia is polite but distant, treating Jean Louise as a “white person,” not as someone who is nearly family.
Jean Louise attends a “Coffee” (a women’s social event) that Alexandra holds in Jean Louise’s honor, where she listens to women talk about race and realizes that her community has always been far more racist than she realized. Afterward, she goes to visit Uncle Jack, who tells her that she needs to understand Southern history in order to understand the racial tensions around her. When she leaves, Jack calls Atticus to tell him about her crisis of belief.
Jean Louise goes downtown to confront first Hank and then Atticus. Although neither one totally agrees with the racist rhetoric of the citizens’ council, both of them have reasons for choosing to tolerate it. Jean Louise condemns them both and returns home to pack and leave Maycomb for good. Uncle Jack comes to stop her, and when she won’t listen, he hits her so hard she nearly passes out.
The blow calms Jean Louise, and she listens quietly as Jack tells her that the real root of her anger is that she has always relied on Atticus as a model of right and wrong, and now for the first time she is developing a conscience of her own. Jean Louise goes to pick up Atticus from work and asks his forgiveness, but he says he is proud of her for defending what she believes is right.