“You’re still unable to think racially. You see only people.”
As one of the most anticipated novels of the year, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, published in July, invites readers to view a piece of the makings of the literary classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. This unveiled story centers on the character many of us know as Scout Finch but, as her adult self, is most often called by her full name, Jean Louise. She still has her spunky attitude, the embodiment of a tomboy rather than a Southern belle. Now a New York resident, she visits her family in Maycomb, Alabama, where she grew up and faces the racial and gender discrimination present in her hometown.
Go Set a Watchman is very much a quest toward understanding for Jean Louise. She returns to a place she once knew so well with a newfound perspective adopted from the North. As she reflects on her past in Maycomb County, she tries but fails to see traces of what she now perceives as racism and sexism. Jean Louise questions how the people with whom she grew up and admired have become so bigoted; however, it is with the assistance of her Uncle Jack that she makes sense of her own stubborn bigotry in regards to the majority of Maycomb’s ideals. She must open her mind, but not necessarily change her mind, to other cultures and perspectives, understanding individuals’ motives, in order to view a full picture of the world.
As in To Kill a Mockingbird, the matter of race—particularly segregation and the level of civil rights available to the black community—is at the forefront of this novel. Her turmoil begins when Jean Louise finds a pamphlet entitled The Black Plague for a Maycomb County Citizens’ Council meeting, of which Atticus Finch is on the board of directors. The pamphlet discusses why the black race is inferior to whites, angering Jean Louise. Upon sneaking into the meeting, she listens to the chosen speaker encourage the “preservation of segregation.” In that moment, Jean Louise loses the overwhelming respect she has always had for her father. Though he does not speak the words she despises, she associates all those in attendance with agreement, later thinking, “I didn’t know what hate was until I lived among you and saw you hating every day.” What comes into conflict here is Jean Louise’s progressive thoughts on such political issues and the man she has considered so righteous and almost superhuman. This then causes her world to seemingly crash around her as its foundation crumbles.
Conversations about racism are not absent within this carefully illustrated novel. Jean Louise discusses it extensively with Henry “Hank” Clinton (her Maycomb suitor), Atticus, and Uncle Jack. Readers are able to understand, as Jean Louise does, the various perspectives of these characters and why they believe what they do, most importantly Atticus’ motives for being associated with the Council. Its publication in 2015 rather than 1960 allows these conversations to continue having merit as we, as a society, are still combating racism in different forms. Many of the core dilemmas found in this text are still relevant in America today. We may not be fighting for or against segregation in its physical sense at this point in time, but we are fighting against discrimination and entitlement in other ways.
Lee also toys with the concept of gender norms and what it means, particularly for Jean Louise, to be a woman. As a twenty-something, she is burdened by her tomboyish behavior also present in To Kill a Mockingbird. This beloved trait of hers provides conflict with her Aunt Alexandra, the women of Maycomb with whom she grew up, and most notably Hank. Hank has been courting Jean Louise since they were in high school and wishes to finally have her hand in marriage. This would be all fine and dandy except for the fact that Jean Louise is very hesitant to marry anyone. Making her even more wary, Hank tells Jean Louise how to be the perfect wife: “Hold your tongue. Don’t argue with a man, especially when you know you can beat him. Smile a lot. Make him feel big. Tell him how wonderful he is, and wait on him.” To Hank’s dismay, she does not see herself succumbing to those submissive, domestic habits.
The pair later engages in more spats about how she should act both as a lady and possible wife, to which she feels a loss of identity. This conflict is ever present in Lee’s novel. While Aunt Alexandra pesters her to act like a lady, Jean Louise just doesn’t seem to fit the bill, especially during a coffee gathering with some women in Maycomb who follow their husbands’ principles of race in the community, not thinking for themselves, which is appalling to Jean Louise. Under this lens, Jean Louise is a contemporary young woman in today’s world, making Go Set a Watchman that much more relevant as she argues against normative women’s roles.
These two major themes lace themselves throughout the text in a manner that emphasizes their importance in society. They are integral to Jean Louise’s character considering her adulthood that allows her to articulate her thoughts as they clash with those of the people she loves. This is the basis of what sets Go Set a Watchman apart from To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Scout is a charismatic six-year-old. Jean Louise has experience and independence whereas Scout does not. Though Lee’s workings of Jean Louise’s narrative falls short, mainly because of extensive scenes and prolonged dialogue that can go on for pages at a time, the idea that Jean Louise is an autonomous woman does not escape but emphasizes the novel’s core ideas.
As readers, it’s natural to compare Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. In this respect, no, the writing is not as polished, conversations sometimes go on a bit too long, several scenes drag, and one character seems to flip-flop between a Miss and a Mister. However, what we have to remember and take into consideration is that Go Set a Watchman is a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a sequel. Readers should understand that the latter is an evolution of the former, which was originally not supposed to be published. Though Go Set a Watchman may not be as revolutionary or recognized as part of the literary canon, without the development of this manuscript, we would not have To Kill a Mockingbird, which truly stands as a thought-provoking novel with a classic cast of characters whom will be remembered beyond the new release of Go Set a Watchman.