Review: Different Ways to Read “Go Set a Watchman”

Anahita Padmanabhan ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

On July 14, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was released, and with it, there have been a lot of mixed reviews. The unique case of Lee’s two books puts Go Set a Watchman in a dual position. One way to read this book is as the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. The other is to read it as its own separate entity. Reading the book as a sequel means that the reader comes into reading the book with a preconceived perception of who the characters are and what has happened. But that seems a bit unfair, considering those ideas come from a book that was written after the one that is currently being read. Reading it as separate novel gives more room for differences, which perhaps is how the book ought to be read.

"Go Set a Watchman" Cover. Source: HarperCollins
“Go Set a Watchman” Cover. Source: HarperCollins

Lee’s “new” novel is set about twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise Finch, more affectionately known as Scout, is now in her late twenties living in New York. She comes back to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama to visit her aging father. Jean Louise is feisty and unafraid to speak her mind. Her brother, Jem, has passed away. Her father, Atticus, is an ailing old man with a shocking view on the world. There are some other characters, such as Atticus’s sister and brother, Alexandra and Jack, and Jean Louise’s longtime boyfriend and childhood friend, Henry Clinton.

Jean Louise remembers her quaint town, the people around whom she was raised, what they were like when she was a child. But Jean Louise is no longer a child. When she comes home, the rose-tinted glass that surrounded Maycomb and its citizens begins to crack. This is a story about that crack and its expansion until it finally shatters, and Jean Louise is faced with uncharted territory.

At times, the story becomes confusing when Uncle Jack speaks, because it’s his nature, apparently, to not make any sense. Jean Louise’s confrontation with reality is brief and occurs very close to the end of the novel, so the reader is left wondering what happens afterwards. The ending itself is a bit painful. Nothing seems to have changed, which is disheartening, or even if it did, the reader wouldn’t know since the confrontation happens with only one chapter left.

Go Set a Watchman is rough. If it wasn’t, it would be To Kill a Mockingbird. It tackles race, but in a much different way than To Kill a Mockingbird. And where To Kill a Mockingbird talks about acceptance of those who are different, Go Set a Watchman talks about seeing people as who they are, not just who we believe them to be. Jean Louise idolizes her father at an almost God-like level. But he isn’t. He is a human with flaws, and Jean Louise needs to face that instead of running from it.

If Go Set a Watchman is read as a sequel, it’s bound to be disappointing to the reader. If it’s read as its own book, it holds up better. But if it’s read as a first draft of one of America’s most treasured novels, it’s really quite impressive, or at the very least, it makes To Kill a Mockingbird seem even more impressive. Regardless, Go Set a Watchman makes some excellent points; it covers topics that are still relevant today, and in the end, it makes for great insight into Harper Lee as a writer.

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