Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Harper Lee is known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. First published in 1960, the novel has become a classic of American literature and is now a fundamental book in many high school curriculums. Go Set a Watchman was only discovered in Lee’s safety deposit box in 2015. It was originally thought to be a second novel, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but many report it to be a first draft of the famous novel. Regardless of its status as To Kill a Mockingbird‘s first draft, prequel or sequel, its release in 2015 was unquestionably going to be a huge success.

Unfortunately, the novel’s release was surrounded by controversy. Harper Lee was insistent that she would not be publishing another novel, so the possibility that Go Set a Watchman is a failed sequel would indicate that its publication would be against Lee’s wishes.

Although it is thought to be a first draft, Go Set a Watchman is entirely different to To Kill a Mockingbird. In this newly released text, Jean Louise Scout is all grown up and living by herself in New York City. Now she is back in Maycomb for two weeks, visiting her father, Atticus, and her boyfriend, Henry Clinton. Her tolerant and empathetic character remains largely unchanged from To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Scout, however, her hometown has undergone a startling transformation.

(Plot spoilers from this point)

The setting of the novel is 1950’s Alabama, U.S.A., with increasing racial tension and fear of the growing power and influence of the NAACP, a grassroots-based civil rights organisation. Horrifyingly, the caring, tolerant image of Atticus, created by To Kill a Mockingbird‘s somewhat childish narrative, is shattered by the revelation that Atticus is a segregationist and has always believed in the superiority of the white race. This shocking disclosure results in an ultimately depressing novel with the bleak conclusion that people rarely change.

The book is clearly a work-in-progress as it has issues of flow and balance. The narrative jumps back and forth in time in a way that has potential, but has not been developed fully. Furthermore, Jean Louise’s fragile, naive character does not read as entirely believable when she realises her father’s fallibility. Her awakening feels rushed and ineloquently explained.  However, her character progression is an interesting central plot line and mirrors the reader’s struggle to understand this new Maycomb.

Even though it is in an unfinished state, it is interesting to read this contrast to the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. But, I believe that its conclusion, defending Atticus’ refusal to change his “traditional” views, could have done harm had it been released in the 1960’s. I am thankful that To Kill a Mockingbird‘s more positive and progressive message was the one published.


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