Book Review: Go Set A Watchman// Harper Lee

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"Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious."



This book has been the subject of debate since its publication was announced late last year. In July, the novel polarized readers, with many being angered that their much adored character, Atticus Finch, had his seemingly fixed, central moral compass tampered with in Go Set A Watchman. Readers in the US were so disappointed with Lee's latest work that one bookshop offered returns, but I'm here to defend the book, and here's why:

Firstly, Lee never intended for the novel to be a sequel to her much acclaimed and loved To Kill A Mockingbird. The manuscript for Go Set A Watchman was composed in 1957 and was written as an initial draft for what then became the bestseller. The book should therefore be read as a work in progress; as a an interesting companion to Lee's debut novel. That is fundamentally what Go Set A Watchman is. It was never proposed to be a final, fully polished piece. Therefore, it is rough around the edges. The book is  more of a preliminary concoction of Lee's thoughts and ideas that feed into To Kill A Mockingbird and become the soul of that work.

The work has also been criticized for lacking a core plot, which I agree it perhaps does lack. However, the novel should not be entirely damned for this absence. Namely, as I've already mentioned, because it is more of an amalgamation of Lee's ideas. Additionally, I viewed the book as having many aspects of the Bildungsroman; a coming of age novel and thus does not necessarily need a lot of events to happen to achieve its desired effect (*cough* May I remind you of Catcher In The Rye? *cough*) as it is centered upon Jean Louise's transition into moral adulthood. Go Set A Watchman is the book in which the female protagonist converts from the girl, Scout, into the woman, Jean Louise. She separates herself from her ancestral community and consequently forms her own conscience, detaching her moral compass from her father's.


“Why doesn’t their flesh creep? 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.” 

Jean Louise returns to Maycomb, having lived in the liberal North, and finds herself being unable to conform or accept the prejudice views of her home town. She's faced with a struggle to align her political views and personal life as she learns that her father's legal want of justice in the courtroom is not reflected in his views of society. The hypocrisy the character finds inherent in her father's attitudes catalyses a shift in her morality as she begins to form an individualized conscience, separating her from the familial 'collective conscious'. 

Go Set A Watchman is by no means a fully fledged novel in itself, but when read alongside To Kill A Mockingbird, not as a sequel but as an insight to Lee's writing process it becomes a useful companion. The characters known and loved are in their feotal state in this draft, despite their aged form. They are yet to be developed and the trajectory of Atticus' morality in To Kill A Mockingbird is not the same as in Go Set A Watchman.  However, in many ways, Go Set A Watchman is more politically charged and honest about the racism of the era as civil unrest and alterations in politics serve to unite and divide not only races but families and communities. The book is not just an exploration of racial prejudices, but of societal evolution as well and for the novel to achieve such an exploration, it requires a liberal Scout and racist Atticus, even with the outrage this has caused.

Despite the fact the novel by no means reached the same heights of literature as the author's debut, Lee's Go Set A Watchman deserves to be defended and read.  However, alike to Scout's detachment from her father in the book, the novel should too, remain detached from the reader's interpretation of To Kill A Mockingbird.

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