Go Set a Watchman Review

I just finished reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which was released on Tuesday, and I will admit that it will never compare to To Kill a Mockingbird. But here’s the thing, I don’t think people should compare the two novels.
If we are to believe Lee’s agents and lawyers, which some people do and others do not, Watchman was a manuscript written before Mockingbird. After the manuscript was turned away, Lee was told to focus on Jean Louise Finch, otherwise known as Scout, and her childhood, and thus, Mockingbird was born.
Watchman does read as an early manuscript. It’s random and doesn’t feel complete. The dialogue is awkward and oftentimes forced. It also doesn’t enthrall the same way Mockingbird did when I first read it as a sophomore in high school. So in comparing the two in this way, Mockingbird will forever be the better novel, but I can’t compare the books that way.
Though characters are the same, the two novels are different in focus. Where Mockingbird follows a six-year-old Scout, Watchman takes place 20 years later. Though Atticus tried and failed to prove Tom’s innocence in Mockingbird, he was able to get Tom acquitted in Watchman. Where Atticus appeared as an inspirational hero for justice in Mockingbird, he is revealed to be a staunch racist in Watchman.
This revelation is exactly what the novel eventually attempts to focus on. Jean Louise, who is still as much of a tomboy as she was in Mockingbird, becomes disillusioned with her father, a man she has held on a pedestal her entire life, when she discovers his seemingly new outlook.
Many fans of Mockingbird were angry when a New York Times’ review outed Atticus as racist, responding as Scout did, with disgust and contempt. I’ll admit, I, too, was angry. Atticus was one of my most beloved literary characters. He was supposed to stand for justice and tolerance. Watchman takes that image and annihilates it.
Some people argue that it’s not right, but let’s say for the sake of the argument that Atticus was always a racist. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised that a white man growing up in a small Southern town in the pre-Civil Rights era held some racist beliefs. I could see that we, as readers, maybe also held him on a pedestal when we first read Mockingbird (though Gregory Peck as Atticus in the film version will forever be a separate entity for me, a non-racist reimagining, if you will).
Mockingbird is told from a six-year-old’s perspective, so how is Scout to know her father’s real reasons for taking the case? Watchman paints Atticus as a man who believes in keeping order. He’ll do what he has to do to keep the peace, but he’s also blissfully ignorant. He tells Jean Louise he has yet to meet someone who can change his mind.
Before Jean Louise lets loose her barrage of thoughts, she recognizes that she can’t argue with Atticus, because it’s never been a battle she could win. She is merely trying to understand how her idol could’ve fallen so far and comes to terms with the hypocrisy she believes he’s shown. She compares him to Hitler, and she tells him, “I despise you and everything you stand for.”
It’s difficult to face these realizations. It was a few years ago that I learned that one of my grandfathers, who I love dearly and hold in high esteem, was a racist for most of his life. It took a personal event, one that I don’t have the authority to speak about, to change his perspective, and I’m proud that he did, but when I learned that he once held those views, I was in utter disbelief. He had already passed away, so there was no way for me to question him and try to understand. Part of me wants to merely remember the man I knew, who was accepting and loving, but I also have to remember that he had faults. It’s painful to learn that people we love can be ignorant, and sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can’t dissuade certain hateful opinions they may hold.
Ultimately, Watchman is about coming to terms with that realization, and the novel shows a more clear example of how racism permeated in the 50s. It’s also sadly relevant today.
So though the novel ultimately struggles to captivate and stand on its own, I do believe its historical relevance holds value. I didn’t hate the novel, but it’s most certainly not a literary masterpiece.
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Go Set a Watchman Review: Photo courtesy of Harper Collins

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