‘Go Set A Watchman’ by Harper Lee

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‘The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman”, had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly’.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, Pg.113

I had reservations about reading Harper Lee’s recently published novel, Go Set A Watchman, simply because of the less-than-questionable nature in which it appeared in the public domain. I have seen many people in the blogging world state that they will not be reading this book and I wish I had the same restraint. However, before I knew it I found myself re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird and buying a copy of the newly-released novel at the Hong Kong Book Fair. Before commencing, I tried to avoid all of the reviews and spoilers’ online and bookmarked bloggers’ reviews that I would come back to at a later date. I didn’t want my opinion or experience of the book to be influenced by anything other than what I already knew about the author and her writing. That being said, it was almost impossible to avoid any information about the book. As everyone already knows, the main ‘twist’ is that Atticus Finch has ‘become’ (though, perhaps he already was) a racist bigot in his old age.

Set almost 20 years after the unforgettable events in To Kill A MockingbirdGo Set A Watchman is, by no means, a sequel to the beloved classic. Instead, Go Set A Watchman is the original manuscript that was never meant to see the light of day. With a lot of direction and guidance from her editor, Harper Lee was able to craft this rough version into the enduring classic we all know, To Kill A Mockingbird. Perhaps this is why there has been so much criticism over the book (taking aside the shady reasons behind its publication) – no one likes seeing his or her literary idols diminished and brought down to a more human level, and this is exactly the case with the once-beloved father-figure, Atticus Finch. Though, for me, personally, I was more disappointed in the portrayal of Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout), whose heroic attempt to stand up for what she believes is right and good is overshadowed by her selfishness.

‘I’m thoughtless, all right. Selfish, self-willed, I eat too much, and I feel like the Book of Common Prayer. Lord forgive me for not doing what I should have done and for doing what I shouldn’t have done – oh hell’.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, Pg.31

Although Jean Louise may admit that she is selfish (and how many people aren’t selfish in their twenties?), this really came to the fore in the harrowing scene between herself and Calpurnia – her childhood maid. The distance between them makes this scene a very difficult read – as also mentioned by Alice from ofBooks in her interesting and thought-provoking review. What made it even more difficult to read was the complete negation of Calpurnia’s voice. We only hear about what Jean Louise has lost, the ‘struggles’ she has faced, with no consideration for Calpurnia’s situation or the hardships she has borne. This is further reinforced by the fact that, although Go Set A Watchman is written in the third-person narrative, Harper Lee often switches to the direct viewpoint of Jean Louise. We hear her direct thoughts and jumbled rants incessantly throughout the novel.

I guess the main issue I had was that I wanted more from Jean Louise. She is definitely much more ‘liberal’ in her thinking than every other white person in Macomb County, in relation not only to race, but to gender roles, class and family ‘pedigree’ – which isn’t hard, but she doesn’t go far enough. Perhaps that is a selfish request, in itself, from someone who is reading what is, essentially, a manuscript, a draft, an unfinished product.

‘How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me – these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me’.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, Pg.167

There is a lot to be said for Harper Lee’s ‘new novel’ and – despite disliking certain sections – it was an incredibly interesting insight into the sheer amount of work that goes into writing a work of fiction. By comparing it to To Kill A Mockingbird, you could see similarities and what had to change for it to endure the test of time. Having finished Go Set A Watchman a couple of weeks ago now, I feel like this distance has given me a new perspective on Harper Lee’s work and her creative genius. Lee recreates, what I imagine is, a very vivid (though one-sided) picture of life in the South during a turbulent time in history. All of the views expressed in the novel, through the different characters, were probably very much ‘of the time’ in which she was writing, though Harper Lee’s viewpoint can only ever be limited in scope. She does, however, write through Jean Louise with honesty, whether for good or for bad.

Whilst trying to collate my thoughts on this book, I came across a really interesting article on Jezebel that I wanted to share:

http://jezebel.com/atticus-was-always-a-racist-why-go-set-a-watchman-is-n-1718996096

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3 Replies to “‘Go Set A Watchman’ by Harper Lee”

  1. You put this so much better than I could have! Brilliant review. Scout, apart from the lack of any voice that wasn’t white, was the most disappointing part of GSaW.

    1. Thank you! I loved your review, it was so heartfelt and honest. It completely summed up how I felt about the book straight after I had finished reading it!

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