Thoughts on Go Set a Watchmen

I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman last night. I do that–read books essentially in one sitting. I am a fast reader, but not so fast that I didn’t stay up until three AM with the book. I’m not saying this is a good thing for me to do, necessarily….

Anyway, having read the book, my initial conclusion was that Ms. Lee’s publisher was right to ask her to write and publish To Kill a Mockingbird instead.

Not that I wish to dis Watchman, it’s a good book and I enjoyed reading it. But the two books seem to be different versions of the same work of art–and Mockingbird is far and away the better version.

I’ll explain what I mean, but first I want to talk a little about Watchman itself, for those who have not read it yet.

As most people have probably heard, Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee’s first book.  It follows a young woman in the 1950’s who returns to her home town to find it seething with racial tensions she had never really noticed before. Most disturbingly, the very people who taught her to treat all people decently are now plainly being indecent to black people and so she feels personally betrayed. The reason the book was not published decades ago is that Harper Lee’s editor suggested that she rework the material and write a book about the protagonist’s childhood instead. The result was To Kill a Mockingbird.

Watchman therefore shows us most of the same characters we know from Mockingbird, but almost twenty years older. And yet the two do not follow precisely compatible storylines. Some of the events in Mockingbird appear in flashback or recollection in Watchman, but with subtle and irreconcilable differences.

Atticus Finch’s character is not one of those differences. Much has been made of how in the new book he has “become” a racist. I know of people who refuse to read Watchman because they want to go on thinking of Atticus as he was–but Atticus always was racist, simply less so than many of his white neighbors. He believes in treating black people with kindness and respect, but he clearly believes they should be second-class citizens. He is not a crusader for social justice, he is a lawyer doing his duty because he wants his children to think well of him–that is his own description of his motivations in Mockingbird.

That Atticus is not everything we might hope him to be is, of course, precisely the point of Watchman, since the central drama of the book is his daughter’s shock at his moral failings. I had therefore expected to see the same character from a different and more human angle. That’s not exactly what happens.

I won’t go in to exactly how the new book ends (although it’s not really a cliffhanger), but Atticus ends up seeming about as admirable as he always has. That is, his racism is somehow framed as an unimportant personal foible that triggers his daughter’s personal growth. In places it seems almost as if that is his intention, that he is nobly displaying his fallibility in order to nudge her towards emotional independence.

So, what are we to take away from Go Set a Watchman, that racism is ok as long as white people love and accept each other? That the moral is unclear is precisely the key to understanding the relationship between the two books–and why I say that they are in fact the same book.

There are many ways to say what a book is about–we can talk about its plot, its setting, its themes…both of Harper Lee’s published books are clearly message-books. That Mockingbird’s plot centers around a court case is almost incidental, a vehicle for exploring its several themes. Besides the destruction of innocence alluded to in the title, the main themes are Scout’s struggle to fit in to society as an intellectually gifted tomboy, the complex tragedy of racism, and the admirableness of Atticus Finch. These themes interact to produce a focused exploration of the ways in which people do and do not harm the innocent.

All three of those three organizing themes, as well as the interactions among those themes, are also at the center of Watchman. That is why I say the two are, in fact, the same view.

But in Watchman it is difficult to say what message the themes come together to deliver. The title references a discussion within the story about conscience, so presumably the moral, if there is one, is that people should develop their own conscience, but the clarity and focus of Mockingbird is missing. There are too many subplots, too many loose moral ends, too many inconsistencies and contradictions. For example, the adult Scout, Jean Louise, realizes that she is “color blind,” that she has somehow been raised by racists without becoming one herself, hence her feelings of shock and betrayal. But she also freely agrees that black people are, as a group, childlike and uncivilized. Her main objection to segregation is that it denies poor black folk the hope of becoming more like white people.


I expect lots of people are actually very much like Jean Louise (or Atticus); able to see people from other groups as human in some contexts and not in others and not necessarily aware of the contradiction. The problem I have is not so much with the characters as with the book; since Harper Lee was obviously trying to say something with this story, what was she trying to say and to whom was she trying to say it? Was she striking a blow for racial justice without realizing the racism of her own characters? Was she trying to make her story more palatable by throwing her white supremacist readers a bone? Was racism merely a convenient device for exploring other issues she cared about more? I’m not sure there’s any way to know.

Sometimes it’s easier to spot other people’s shortcomings if we have them ourselves. My own tendency as a writer is to start out with some vague and intuitive sense of my topic and from there to commence generating a huge sprazil of plots and subplots and characters–or, if it’s nonfiction, I want to crowd every single meander of an idea that I’ve had onto the page. Mine is not a direct thought process. That’s an advantage sometimes, but not always. I need to be able to explore and meander, but after that I need somebody to tell me to get to the point–even to ask me what the point is.

My guess is that Harper Lee needed the same thing and that she got it. And To Kill a Mockingbird is the result, the same book, but clarified, focused, and made excellent.



About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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