Review: Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee (2015)

go set a watchman

“She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful”

Was a sequel to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ strictly necessary? It was a self-contained story that left no threads dangling. Harper Lee’s agent told her to write her novel about Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch returning to Alabama from New York from the perspective of the child, and change Lee’s original title, ‘Go Set A Watchmen.’ Thus we had the classic book ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ But does ‘Go Set A Watchman,’ the story of Scout’s adulthood, offer us anything valuable? Does it offer us anything worthwhile? Unfortunately, the answer is: not really…

‘Go Set A Watchman,’ as mentioned before, tells us the story of a 26 year old Scout’s return to her family in Maycomb. She’s lived in New York since finishing college and returns every few years or so to see her arthritic father. However, the story is meandering and aimless. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was about a white man defending an innocent black man in a court of law. There was Boo Radley and other sub-plots along the way, but Atticus Finch as the defence lead the reader through the book. There isn’t much at all to ‘Go Set A Watchmen.’ For the first half of the book, Scout talks to on/off boyfriend Henry/Hank Clinton, talks to her father, talks to her Auntie, is invited to a tea party…etc. It’s plodding and dull, until the widely promoted ‘twist.’ Scout’s ruminations and reservations about returning to Maycomb are repetitive. She’s grown up, moved to New York. She’s unsure of whether to marry Hank or not. Even dull subject matter can be enlivened by great prose.

Great prose the book is not, however. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ is taken from a manuscript found last year. It is a first draft, and it reads like one. While there are flashes of brilliant prose dotted throughout the text, much of it is uninspiring and hemmed in by lethargic dialogue. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ engaged the reader not only with the story and themes, but with the delicate and seductive writing. Go Set A Watchman bludgeons the writer with obvious metaphors and stale dialogue. It’s something of a chore to read, even more so with the aforementioned lack of story.

“Conceived in mistrust, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”

As for the much-lauded twist in the story? All along, it seems, Atticus was a racist. Scout sneaks in on a Citizen’s Council meeting where Atticus introduces and enthuses about Mr Grady O’Hanlon, a grade A segregationist/racist. O’Hanlon criticizes the NAACP and civil rights for black people in general. How can Atticus, the hero of the first book, be a racist? According to ‘Go Set A Watchman,’ he believes that they are an inferior race; that they are merely “children” compared to the “adult” white people. They aren’t ready to be given the same rights as white people.

Is the twist that shocking, though? There’s nothing subtle about his apparent change of heart in the second book, but I’ve always believed that Atticus was a man full of prejudice. Yes, he may have defended an innocent black man and argued against racial prejudice. But consider, for example, what he says about women not being able to be on a jury in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’: “I guess it’s to protect our frail ladies from sordid cases like Tom’s…I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried—the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.” Atticus is grinning, but it doesn’t sound like a joke. Consider also his view of Bob Ewell; there’s pity for ‘white trash’ like Ewell, but also a great deal of looking down upon Ewell from Atticus. It wasn’t a stretch for me to believe there would be more prejudices behind the ‘holier-than-thou’ façade of Atticus Finch.

Of course, Lee wants to convey the idea that even though Finch is learned and intelligent, his Southern origin stamps racism on his soul. The revelation causes havoc in Scout’s mind, and Lee spends a considerable amount of time on the impact on Scout, to varying effect. However, is her indignation simply hypocritical? The last part of the book revolves around an argument between Scout and Atticus about his racism. Whereas her outbursts are emotional and illogical, Atticus’ argument is portrayed as rational. Towards the end, Scout says “We’ve agreed that they’re backward, that they’re illiterate, that they’re dirty and comical and shiftless and no good, they’re infants and they stupid…but we haven’t agreed on one thing and we never will. You deny that they’re human.” Basically, Scout agrees with Atticus’ argument! She even resorts to bringing Hitler into the argument. ‘Reductio Ad Hitler’ is the ultimate halt to an argument that someone is losing.

“I hope the world will little note nor long remember what you are saying here”

Scout’s internal racism, inflected with a Northern insistence on civil rights, may be the surprise of the novel. However, apart from that, there is little merit in ‘Go Set A Watchman.’ Of course, it’s released at a time when race issues are at a high in the USA, thanks to white police man and their ‘shoot black people first, ask questions later’ mentality. Although there’s a black man in the White House, civil rights are still not equal for white people and black people. But we already know that, and finding out that Atticus is racist doesn’t add anything to these issues (or, indeed, the issues that were around at the time that Lee wrote the manuscript). There’s the academic interest of re-reading ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ after reading its’ sequel, but it’s not something I would undertake as a pleasurable exercise.

‘Go Set a Watchman’ at once tarnishes the themes and characters of To Kill A Mockingbird and claims no right to exist on its own. It’s a dull, monotonous read that piles dialogue upon dialogue without pushing the story forward. It’s entertaining in fits and starts, but enlightening in only the briefest of moments. Like many sequels before it, the main reason for its existence is profit, and little else.

VERDICT: 3/10. A below-average book that offers little to justify its existence beyond twisting the characters and story of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ A rough draft that needed extensive editing.

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