“For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
One of the things that can happen when we emerge out of the cocoon of childhood is that the heroes of that childhood are revealed as flawed, complex creatures in need of re-examination. This is something that I think it is important to remember; Jean Louise (Scout) in ‘Watchman’ has her childhood view of her father shaken horribly, and therefore our view of a character – that for many is a hero of our formative years – is similarly rocked. To Kill a Mockingbird is told in a first person narrative – the point of view is that of a young child, her understanding of the adult world around her is often limited to what the adults allow her to see. Go Set a Watchman is a third person narrative, although we remain very much inside Scout’s head – an adult perspective in the 1950’s rather than a child’s perspective in the 1930’s will necessarily be very different. Alabama in the 1950’s was a volatile place, for many people things were very black and white. There are some frankly horrible opinions expressed in Watchman – they shock, as I believe they are meant to – the adult Scout is a thinly disguised Harper Lee – Scout’s disgust and grief at what is happening in the south Harper Lee’s own.
“She heard her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”
There has, as everyone, I am sure is aware, been a lot of controversy surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman. There are a lot of people who have already decided they don’t want to read it – they don’t want their hero diminished. I can understand that, but in a sense the genie is already out of the bottle – surely everyone knows by now that in ‘Watchman’ Atticus is portrayed as having extreme racist/segregationist opinions – this nearly prevented me reading a book I ordered months ago. When those first reviews and articles about ‘Watchman’ appeared the weekend before the novel was published I read some of them with rising alarm, I began to dread reading the book. I am now very glad that I pushed my fears aside and began to read it on Sunday evening. I don’t want to say too much about the things which make this a weaker book – because for me they were by the by, perhaps one slightly disappointing thing is that the character development is not as rich as in Mockingbird. Scout or Jean Louise as we must learn to call her though, is wonderful – she is every bit the woman you felt the child Scout might grow up to be.
“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.”
For me ‘Watchman’ is a tender, angry book, far more powerful than I expected. It is not a flawless book, but really it is not a terrible book – it is a very good book, definitely one worth reading, and I find, again surprisingly, that it has only enhanced my love of To Kill a Mockingbird. I have heard Go Set a Watchman described as a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird – I think it is rather more than that – there is plenty of new stuff in it. Go Set a Watchman is an echo of Mockingbird, a companion piece perhaps – but not really either a sequel or a prequel. There are a few inconsistencies – which I felt really don’t matter – for example Atticus is described as having got Robinson acquitted.
Jean Louis (Scout) now aged twenty-six returns to her home town of Maycomb to see her ageing father Atticus, now seventy-two and suffering badly from Arthritis. Waiting for her at the station is Henry – her long-time boyfriend who at times she thinks she will marry – at other times she is unsure of how right for her Henry is. Jean Louise has spent the last few years in New York – Maycomb is an altogether different place – its concerns seem smaller. Those small town Southern attitudes soon begin to stifle; Aunt Alexandra – living with Atticus to take care of him – arranges a toe-curling ‘coffee’ for Jean Louise. Here she can reacquaint herself with all the local women with whom she has nothing in common. Atticus has taken Henry under his wing – and from him Henry is learning the law with a view to taking over the law practice in time. As Jean Louise settles back into her father’s house and the town of her childhood – her mind returns to the stories of her childhood and adolescence, happier times with Jem and Henry, the time before she was forced to see Atticus in a whole new light.
“The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”
Uncle Jack, Atticus’s younger brother is a confidant and old friend to Jean Louise and it is to him that the adult Scout runs when she witnesses her adored father and her boyfriend at a Maycomb Citizens Council meeting. This council, attended by the white men of Maycomb, presided over by Atticus Finch, playing host to a visiting speaker well known for his vile views is a forum for frank discussion of racial issues and the US Supreme Court’s new anti-segregation law – which many in Maycomb believe go right against the traditions of the South. Jean Louise is sickened quite literally by what she discovers – everything she thought she knew is profoundly shaken.
So I laid aside Go Set a Watchman more moved than I had expected to be – and Atticus is not diminished in my mind – he is changed, naturally, and that is sad – but because he is still very recognisable I found that while I may hate his racial, segregationist views I couldn’t entirely hate him. Atticus’s views would not have been uncommon in Alabama at this time; he was representative of the community in which he lived. He is still shown as a moral, wise seeker of justice, and as the novel ends Jean Louise must begin to learn to accept the man she loves in a new guise, and so maybe do we.
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.”