Review: Go Set a Watchman

I was one of the 100,000+ readers who bought a copy of Go Set a Watchman on its first day of issue. For me To Kill a Mockingbird is a great work of literary, social and political significance. So, I was anxious to read Harper Lee’s second (or first) novel which apparently served as the draft which became To Kill a Mockingbird. The pre-publication reviews of Watchman, which were largely uncomplimentary, didn’t deter me.

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Harper Lee

So, Lee submitted a draft of Watchman to publisher J B Lippencott, where an editor suggested that she re-write the book in the first person, from the perspective of Scout, a young girl. The re-writing took two years, during which Lee became so frustrated she threw the manuscript out the window of her New York apartment into the snow. Her literary agent persuaded her to retrieve it and carry on. Reportedly, during the re-writing, Lee’s editor was closely involved with her.

Two of the principal characters, Scout and her father Atticus, appear in both novels. But, in Watchman, Scout has become Jean Louise, a twenty-something, new York-based, adult, and Atticus is now in his seventies, still living in the rural Alabama town. Three new major characters are introduced in Watchman: Henry Clinton, a life-long friend and marriage prospect; Aunt Alexandra, her father’s sister, an arch, small-town, Southern traditionalist; and Dr John, her father’s brother, and eccentric but wise philosopher. Jem, Scout’s older brother, is strangely dead.

In Mockingbird, the plot focused on the trial of a black man who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman; he is defended by Atticus, the small town lawyer. This tightly-focused plot yields themes of justice, racial and sexual equality, love and duty.

In Watchman, the story follows Jean Louise’s relationships with Henry, her aunt, her uncle and her father. Race is again an issue, but less dramatic and compelling: the grandson of Jean Louise’s childhood black, nanny/mentor has killed an old white man in a car accident which was the grandson’s fault. This time, Atticus is revealed as a racist who wants to limit the freedom and political power which black people have acquired over the preceding twenty years. The message I get from the book is that how one acts on vital issues, such as race relations, is determined by our conscience (the Watchman), and our conscience is influenced by our context, which must also be respected. At the very least, Watchman seems to be a watering down of the clear, landmark message of Mockingbird. Disappointing!

The characters, the setting, and the context of Watchman are all well defined, credible and real. These descriptions rely on interesting, unique writing. Some of the dialogue comes across as contrived, rather than natural. Frequently, there are references to obscure literary figures: these references tend to confuse rather than illuminate. Apart from my concerns about the message of the novel, the plot seems to have been created ad lib. Too much text is devoted to setting the context, and exploring dead ends (Jean Louise’s relationship with Henry), and not enough effort is exerted on defining the role and implications of the Watchman.

One can’t help but wonder if the editor behind Mockingbird were still alive and involved with Watchman, what would the recent novel be?

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