More than fifty years after her Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee brings us Go Set a Watchman, a book with abundant similarities to her first. While it has been advertised as a sequel to Mockingbird, many believe it to be one of the novel’s earlier drafts, given certain paragraphs which are present in both texts, and explain Lee’s editor suggested she write a novel springing off the idea of a childhood throwback scene in Watchman. It is believed by some that was the genesis of her 1960 classic. Rumors and general literary dissatisfaction aside, Go Set a Watchman is a work able to hold its own with Mockingbird which, given its literary notoriety, is no simple feat.
Watchman is set in the Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, and is complete with the whole Mockingbird cast minus Jem (who is only present in recollection) and with the addition of Henry Clinton, grown Scout’s boyfriend. The novel opens with Scout returning home from New York, where she attended college and has started a Northern life for herself. She returns feeling nostalgic about her hometown but is unhappy to find much is unchanged in terms of racial equality, and that other changes in the community are negative ones, such as the conversion of neighborhood areas into commercial property.
As the story progresses Scout discovers her father’s racist tendencies, a discovery she can’t bear. She visits her old black nurse, Calpurnia, who she expects to act motherly toward her, but is also disappointed there; Cal is cold to her, indifferent. Shaken, Scout turns to her uncle to piece together the logic of the changes. In the end she decides her father isn’t singularly good and neither is Calpurnia, and most monumentally that the idealization of her father’s conscience was a hurdle she had to cast aside in order to see people for what they are: amalgams and not blocks of any singular quality. She realizes she “confused [her] father with God.”
Watchman fails many readers in what seems, at first glance, to be political incongruity with Mockingbird. Whereas Mockingbird calls loudly for racial and moral decency, Watchman asks more quietly; seems only to whisper for righteousness and to whisper for it with other whispers, for other wants, uttered beside it. Watchman speaks of morality in shades learned individually, instead of nationally taught pillars of Right and Wrong, which seems strange at the hands of Lee, given her Civil Rights acclaim.
As upsetting as it is to see Atticus Finch—embodiment of good, school child’s compass—sit in on a Citizens’ Council (white supremist) meeting, the appendage of a fault in his person is what makes the novel so brilliant; where To Kill a Mockingbird spoon feeds morality by Atticus’s hand, Go Set a Watchman allows the reader to conclude on his own.
When Mockingbird was released racism was taught, to many, as a blanket rule. Lee did a revolutionary thing with her novel in pulling this blanket back, but she did—in as morally sound a way as can be done—put one in its place. With Mockingbird she replaced the Wrong blanket of racism with the Right one of equality, but with Watchman she was not so neat, so careful.
With Watchman Lee did not wrap new wool over the place she removed it. She held loyally to her own axiom: “do not judge.” She procured a still and, as much in the manner of brother passing a bit of film as is possible, let the reader observe it himself. Her image does not lean toward seeing one thing or not seeing another. It is brave. It relies on the reader as her fellow life authority, her fellow observer. It does not say “this is good” and “this is bad.” It whispers, and whispers only “This is. See in it what you will.”
Anushka Bidani is currently a 15 year old student, with further plans to pursue Humanities. She has been an attendee of the Delhi Slam Camp- Summer 2016 and the Delhi Poetry Slam Retreat (Jaipur, 2016). Her work has been published on the Writer’s Asylum, among others. When not writing, she can be found binge watching anything ranging from How I Met Your Mother to Da Vinci’s Demons. Among poetry, prose, films, paintings, or anything artistic, is where she is the happiest.