My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Before I start anywhere with this review, let me just say: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books ever. Of all time. It confirmed my love for bildungsromans, fuelled my interest in said genre, and warmed my heart in so many ways. When it was announced that Harper Lee - who has famously only published that ONE book - would be releasing a sequel, Go Set a Watchman, I knew at once that I would have to read it.
Whereas Mockingbird is perfect for a young audience, Watchman comes across as an adult-geared book. It deals with the same difficult themes through not the eyes of young "Scout," but rather the now 26-year old, cigarette-smoking, New Yorker Jean Louise Finch. Everything (and everyone) is different. The famous court case, around which which Mockingbird largely revolved, is only given a couple of paragraphs in Watchman. Dill is in Italy, Jem died of a heart stroke years ago, Henry Clinton wants Jean Louise's hand in marriage, and the almost prophet-like Uncle Jack is suddenly a principal character. And to many readers’ dismay, the legendary Atticus Finch is 72, has arthritis and - as nearly all online reviews boldly declare in their titles - is racist.
Atticus Finch, arguably the most respected father in American literature—a racist? In Watchman, Jean Louise returns from New York to discover that her father is suddenly on the board of directors on the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, a union that holds KKK meetings and is viciously pro-segregation. Instead of echoing his “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” philosophy, Atticus instead asks his daughter, “do you want them in our world?” A priori, such a turn defies everything Mockingbird stood for and stamps out its very heart and soul. Such change is best captured by Jean Louise's own words:
“You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave.”
“I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.”
Yet Atticus’s racist views, framed by cold pragmatism and a harsh sort of “balance out the equities” approach, urges us to think about racism on a deeper level because this sort of prejudice differs from the more conspicuous and easier-to-criticize violence presented to us in Mockingbird. In Watchman, the racism we encounter is spoken by good people, explained in sophisticated ways and pronounced without raised voices. “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” says Atticus. That is why it is so difficult to agree, as Jean Louise herself lashed out, that the Atticus we once knew is now a “coward as well as a snob and a tyrant.” Indeed, there are moments in the novel when Atticus is defended (the notion that his motive is to observe the racism, and hence understand how to combat it, is raised a couple of times). Regardless, one cannot depart from the novel with the same reception of Mockingbird’s Atticus.
Yet just as we are given deeper insight into Atticus’s beliefs, we are also enlightened as to Jean Louise's own shortcomings. Interestingly enough, she has a flaw that is and isn’t a flaw:
“You have never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you're still unable to think racially.”Lee seems to have taken the sweet innocence of Mockingbird and whammed it with a heavy dose of real-world bitterness.
More significantly, as Uncle Jack explains, Jean Louise's biggest problem is that she had always confused her father “with God:”
The most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father.Which is why,
If a man says to you, “This is the truth,” and you believe him, and you discover what he says is not the truth, you are disappointed and you make sure you will not be caught out by him again.But a man who has lived by truth — and you have believed in what he has lived — he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.
So, whereas Mockingbird is a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel, Watchman is, to use Uncle Jack's words, a "coming into this world" novel. It is a story about having deep-rooted beliefs shattered, of struggling to reconcile with the people you love whose principles oppose yours completely. When Jean Louise screams at Atticus, therefore, she is—according to Uncle Jack—reducing her father “to the status of a human being.” Readers are forced to do that too, eroding the legendary status of one of literature’s most memorable heroes.
And it is in this complex father-daughter relationship that the significance of the title unravels itself:
For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees."
“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.”
To set a watchman is to follow your own moral compass despite the disillusionment you suffer; it is to be surrounded by a county of people who think differently from and but still be able to discern what is right by your own standards. The title "To Kill a Mockingbird" is hypothetical, suggesting a scenario, but"Go Set a Watchman" is a direct command. In all walks of life, we need to set our own watchman—to set us straight.
Watchman asks bigger questions than Mockingbird does. We read about a more complicated form of prejudice—not simply discrimination against a different race—but a fixed-mindset that brutally labels even the nicest of people. For example, Henry points out that Jean Louise is entitled to a certain wildness because she is a “Finch” and “all Finches” are “mad.” On the other hand, he is obliged to toe the line because any false step would mean that it is the "red-necked" “trash” within him rearing its ugly face.
Towards the end of Watchman, when everything turns unwelcomingly dialogue-heavy, and Jean Louise keeps interrupting everything Atticus and Uncle Jack was saying, the conversations becomes overdramatized and excessively vicious (sadly, I think Jean calling Atticus a “son of a btch” is going to be permanently ingrained in my memory). Another thing I don't like about the novel is Uncle Jack's oracle-esque, all-knowing role. Yes, he has his charm, but his character’s wisdom and insight seemed purported and unconvincing at times. Overall, Watchman lacks the warmth and imaginative plot of its prequel.
Nonetheless, despite everything that is different in Watchman, Lee still includes a couple of "throwback" chapters in the novel that recount stories from Jean Louise's childhood and are written in the same young and humorous voice I loved so much in Mockingbird. Lines such as "Atticus was in bed reading" (215) do take on back. If you don't read the whole book, do read Chapter 11 - it is an absolute gem.
So, I appreciate Watchman for its depth and exploration. Yet thankfully, despite everything, Mockingbird will still have a special place in my heart forever.
(P.S. Every time I typed "Jean Louise" in this review, I was aching to type "Scout")
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