Review for “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee (2015)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
— Warning: Spoilers ahoy! —
Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel. What it is, is the first draft of a book Harper Lee wrote in 1957 before her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird that was initially rejected by publishers. In reading the first chapter of this, I completely understand why Watchman is not a good book. It presents a challenge for me to write a review on it here, because Harper Lee probably never intended to have this work see the light of day. As a writer myself, I am of the opinion that a first draft is hardly considered a ‘novel’ because it is not yet a completed product. Even the publisher considered this book to be “more of a series of anecdotes” than a fully conceived novel. Therefore, the designated title of ‘novel’ for Watchman is deceptive and debatable at best. For all intents and purposes, I didn’t read this as a novel or a sequel, but as a historical snapshot of a certain era in American history.
As a novel, however, Watchman fails, and fails miserably. There are poor quality, hurriedly printed, standard YA fare that are better than this. It is completely bland and lacks the personality and the colorful, rich dialogue of Mockingbird. In this book, Jean Louise is a spoiled, narcissistic young adult. There is a faint trace of a plot, which I’ll discuss later, but the simplicity of it is highly problematic. Attempts at humor on the part of any of the characters fall woefully flat. The writing is terribly scattered and confusing, and narration wanders aimlessly between 1st and 3rd person, past and present tense.
What can be gleaned from the faint glimmer of the plot of this book is this: Jean Louise learns that her father, Atticus, is not who she thought he was. They argue (the climax of this book). She accepts him anyway. End of novel. In between are flashbacks of Scout as a child, of her brother Jem (who is now deceased), and Dill, only in Watchman these accounts are unfocused, muddled, and boring. We learn a little about Scout’s transition into womanhood, but that’s about it. Some characters reappear from Mockingbird such as Uncle Jack, Calpurnia, and Aunt Alexandra. Noticeably absent are characters such as Boo Radley, Miss Crawford, Dolphus Raymond, and several others.
There is very little in this book that characterizes Atticus Finch, the titular character, other than what we already know from Mockingbird and what we observe on the surface. Twenty years after the greatness of Mockingbird, Atticus is now a lonely, arthritic racist. Other than this, the Atticus of Watchman is a flat character. The climax of this book is an argument between Jean Louise and Atticus, in which we are only told by Harper Lee how to feel Atticus, then to change our minds and feel differently. Just as Jean Louise learns Atticus isn’t who he truly is, white readers learned last week that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t necessarily the book that they loved as children.
Because this book functions as a historical snapshot, the race and class politics of this book cannot be ignored. White supremacy is in plain view all over Watchman. Jean Louise, we learn, is opposed to the recent Supreme Court decision that ‘separate but equal’ is unconstitutional. She feels as if no ‘respectable’ white person would ever marry a Negro. She is also frustrated at Calpurnia at her perceived disloyalty to her, for daring to care more about her own grandson than memories of raising her. Her and Atticus both despise the NAACP and feel that the government has no right to tell white Southerners what to do. The foundation of her attitude is that Negroes are inferior, and whites are intellectually superior. Although it appears that Jean Louise has a more progressive view on race than her father, it really isn’t.
As previously stated, the real interesting part of this book is the climax–the argument between Jean Louise and Atticus. Atticus remains calm throughout, however, after the argument, Uncle Jack slaps her. Jean Louise learns that, as a woman, the beliefs of white men are to be respected and will be imposed upon her, even through violence. Patriarchy is the law of the Finch household, and if she is to stay there, she must submit to it. There is no compromise to be made here, as Atticus and Uncle Jack never compromise their racist beliefs. Jean Louise reluctantly learns to listen, even though she somewhat disagrees as to what role blacks should play in their community.
By conceding to hateful beliefs, Jean Louise tolerates racism, as well as respects those who practice it, because they are, in her view, ‘decent’ white people. Atticus is a white supremacist, but since he is a “nice racist” (after all, he did defend that colored boy, Tom Robinson), Jean Louise is content to maintain a more humanistic view of Atticus and respect him, and we as readers, fifty years later, should too.
My response? Hell no.
Hate, in any form, is not respectable and does not deserve tolerance. It is fascinating that this argument still exists today, with people who feel that their religious beliefs should go before others who ask for tolerance. Hate is simply not acceptable and should not be tolerated. By her silence toward the status quo, Jean Louise really isn’t all that much different from Atticus. The message that we should should carry here is that we as a society still haven’t evolved much, fifty years later.
Many people are shocked and disgusted to find that Atticus has “changed ” in this book. The thing is, Atticus hasn’t changed, he has always held racist beliefs. But like young Scout, readers are too blinded by their saintlike regard for Atticus that they ignored this, or simply did not see it. I, too, gave Atticus way too much credit here. Big mistake.
It is hard to believe that same author of this book could craft something with the beauty and dexterity of To Kill a Mockingbird in just two years. It is indeed a remarkable feat in and of itself, as well as my guess that she also probably had one hell of an editor the second time around, as this book lacks one.
Two stars here. I refuse to give Watchman one star, I respect Harper Lee too much. If anything, the hot mess of this book makes me clutch To Kill a Mockingbird all the more tighter and treasure it for the gem that it truly is, and to learn to understand the contradictions that make us all human.