Go Set a Watchman: the literary event of the year; Harper Lee’s first novel in over 50 years and only her second overall; the most controversial book of 2015.
The excitement felt by many on hearing of the release of this novel was soon tainted by the many controversies surrounding it. There were serious questions over whether Harper Lee had actually given consent for Watchman to be published, especially as the news came so soon after the death of her sister, who for years had been seen as Lee’s ‘protector’. Then, only days before the novel’s release came a second round of controversy. This time it was revealed that Atticus Finch, Mockingbird’s heroic figure, fair to all and inspirational to so many, is presented in Watchman as a bigot who reads racist propoganda and even once attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was horrified and absolutely refused to believe it. I went into denial. It just couldn’t be true. Surely the reviewer had misread some subtle layer of meaning that I would be able to interpret on closer reading.
However (and I realise as I write this that I am still clinging on to a small piece of that denial) we must remember that Watchman is not, strictly speaking, a sequel to Mockingbird. In fact it was written first and provided the spring board for Mockingbird. The characters we see in this novel, even though they have the same names, were first drafts, who were carefully re – shaped by Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird.
As I read Go Set a Watchman, what I actually saw were characters who were more realistic than those in Mockingbird. They inhabit the grey spaces in between the black and white of right and wrong. There are no simple answers in this story. Mockingbird is like a fairy tale, with characters representing various aspects of good (Atticus, Scout, Tom Robinson, the real Boo Radley) and evil (Bob and Mayella Ewell, the imagined gothic-horror Boo Radley). Watchman on the other hand presents us with characters who are like us. Atticus is “a nice, sweet old gentleman” who is polite to everyone and a bigot at the same time. Jean Louise, when confronted with this truth, actually wishes to some extent that she had been brought up differently so that she would fit in with the prejudices of those around her and not feel so alone. Henry is charming and fun, yet at the same time willing to compromise his morals to be accepted. They all inhabit the spaces between good and evil, between right and wrong. The tone is darker and the message of the novel is that those we idolise and worship as heroes are never as perfect as they may appear to be. It is a novel about growing up and discovering unpleasant truths.
When it comes down to basic plot, Watchman is certainly far weaker than Mockingbird. It is nowhere near as entertaining or as well – written. But, despite this it has some fantastic moments that make me so glad it was published and that show the promise of what was to come when Lee developed her ideas to become Mockingbird. The moment that Jean Louise discovers the truth about her father’s views is one of these – I felt every bit as betrayed as she did; I felt every ounce of her pain at the revelation that Atticus is not the man she thought he was. However the absolute best moments of the novel were by far the flashbacks. The descriptions of Jean Louise as a teenager were fantastic to read but they were nothing compared to the scene where Jem, Scout and Dill play-act a baptism. That moment had to be my favourite part of the whole book – I cannot imagine anyone failing to laugh when Dill appears in a bed sheet as the holy ghost!
Best read as a companion to To Kill a Mockingbird rather than a sequel, Go Set a Watchman makes for fascinating reading, even though it does not quite live up to the high standards set by Lee’s first novel.