Like countless other children, I read and watched To Kill A Mockingbird in a grade school classroom. I could spend hours writing about how it introduced me to the concept of racism, illustrated the importance of compassion, the complexities of its theming, and Gregory Peck’s phenomenal performance as Atticus Finch. You probably know all of that already, though; Go Set A Watchman has been a bestseller since its release, and for good reason. Be it for Harper Lee’s legacy in the literary world, talk of the scandalous publishing circumstances, or the morbid curiosity in regards to a fallen hero, readers are interested in going back to Maycomb. The reunion is bitter, but worth the trip.
Before getting into this, one thing above all else needs to be understood: Contrary to what might’ve been marketed to you, Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel. It started as an early draft that eventually led to a famous novel. It featured a 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch coming home to visit, finding out how messed up everything is, and dealing with it while accompanied by flashbacks to her supposedly idyllic childhood. Those flashbacks – and advice from Lee’s editor – are the foundations of To Kill A Mockingbird. Any transition from first draft to book is fraught with changes, and Harper Lee’s work is no exception; the continuity errors and lack of editing are obvious. Tom Robinson was acquitted (the iconic trial is only mentioned in passing) in this version, which makes one wonder if this story can even be considered canon. Jem is dead and Dill is likely traveling through post-World War II Europe, thus depriving her of some much-needed friends/confidants. The cast is limited to only a handful, and even fewer get any kind of development. Rather than a fully fleshed-out novel, it comes off as a character study strung together with a series of anecdotes.
It seems fine at first. Scout has grown into a confident, successful young woman. Not only can she afford to live in New York and visit Atticus annually, but approaches her hometown’s seemingly old-fashioned traditions with open contempt. She has a passive-aggressive war with her Aunt Alexandra (who serves as the embodiment of Maycomb’s values as opposed to a fully-realized character), and considers her Uncle Jack as eccentric bookworm. With her peers gone, the narrative focuses on Scout’s relationship with Henry Clinton, her not-quite fiance and Atticus’s protege. It’s a charming story until Scout finds out about their participation in the local Citizens’ Council. Rather than taking a step back and trying to figure out what’s going on, she immediately assumes the worst and spends the latter half of the book having a meltdown.
This is nothing new for her. We get to see Scout’s childhood and coming of age via flashbacks, and they all foreshadow her problem. She tends to believe whatever she sees or is told without question, makes assumptions, lets her issues build up, and either gets caught or has to be bailed out of trouble by her companions. These passages blend often comedy and tragedy; we get a glimpse of a clueless Atticus turning to Calpurnia for help with Scout’s first period, which is a reminder of how Mrs. Finch is long dead. Scout also gets French kissed on the playground, thinks she’s gotten pregnant, secretly harbors the guilt for months, culminating in a half-baked suicide attempt. Not to mention insecurities with her appearance, which nearly ruin her experience at school dance, and how it leads to her near-expulsion. With stories like these, it’s not surprising why To Kill A Mockingbird became its own thing.
Scout’s misunderstandings and awkward stubbornness are endearing when she’s a kid, but not so much when she’s 26. When attending a coffee luncheon with her former classmates, she spends the entire time musing how they have nothing in common and how she despises Maycomb’s expectations of women. She never makes an attempt to see them as actual people instead of walking cliches.There are over 100 pages between her finding about Atticus and confronting him about it, and she spends them either reminiscing about her childhood, dismissing other people, or inwardly fuming. The narration explains it immediately: Scout worshiped her father, but never realized it. It’s one thing to respect your parent, but holding him up as an idealized bastion of moral perfection is not good for you. Parents are flawed just like you, and you won’t always agree with them. Scout’s near mental breakdown and falling out with her family shows how bad such a character flaw can get.
“She was extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”
Surprisingly, Atticus is written more sympathetically. Make no mistake: His view of African Americans is offensively patronizing at the very least. To modern audiences, his anti-integration stance is disgusting. By no means is he the frothing, manic, lynch-happy racist Scout thinks he’s become (she compares him to Hitler in one eye roll-inducing moment during her lengthy, bitter speech), but his brand of bigotry is more subtle. Unlike his daughter, he argues his side calmly; he hates what happened with Brown v. Board of Education and its relation to the 10th Amendment, and loathes the idea of NAACP affecting Maycomb. His heritage is deeply intertwined with the town; of course he’d want to protect its values and keep things unchanged for as long as possible, even if (to us, anyway) they are horrifying. It’s no coincidence that Atticus is 72 and crippled with arthritis; he, like the town, embodies beliefs that are on the verge of death. He’s not necessarily evil, but merely a product of his time.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn’t get the same attention. Calpurnia, now withered and confined to a rocking chair, shows up for one incredibly sad and guilt-ridden scene. Aunt Alexandra only shows a hint of depth when Scout makes her cry during their final argument, which makes their interpersonal spats look juvenile in retrospect. Henry seems primed for character growth; he’s the scion of one of Maycomb’s “trash” families, worked his way out of poverty, and done well under Atticus’s wing. He admits that he’s just going along with the Citizens’ Council because he’s trying to live according to others’ expectations, and is desperately afraid of being shamed by the community and losing everything he’s worked for. It would’ve made for an interesting arc, but Henry slips into irrelevance soon after the reveal.
Uncle Jack, however, steals every scene he’s in; he’s savvy enough to understand that a confrontation is inevitable and tries to stealth-mentor Scout via exposition and literary quotations. She ends up so angry and confused that he has to physically intervene and slap her just to keep her from walking out on them forever. He then has to spell out Scout’s personal failings – and a major theme of the novel – because she’s too dense to understand them. The fact that he considered Scout and Jem to be the children he never had – and the revelation that he was in love with their mother – is practically tacked on as an afterthought. Uncle Jack’s lack of character development is unfortunate, because his sarcasm and eccentric personality makes him such a great contrast to the straitlaced Atticus:
“”Listen, girl. You’ve got to shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast. You will begin now. Do you think Atticus is going to hurl a thunderbolt at you?”
“After what I said to him? After the-”
Dr. Finch jabbed the floor with his his walking stick. “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?”
No. She had not. She was terrified.
“I think you’ll have a surprise coming,” said her uncle.”
There’s a scene in which Scout, desperate for something welcoming and familiar, returns to her childhood home. It’s been replaced with an ice cream shop, and it takes only a few pages before she vomits up her vanilla and realizes that everything has irrecoverably changed. While I doubt Go Set A Watchman will provoke such an extreme reaction from its readers, there’s no denying what it means for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s easy to dismiss this novel for its lack of proper editing, continuity errors, and questionable background, but its messages are worth considering. Just like Scout, we’ve spent decades worshiping Atticus Finch as a figure of ultimate moral integrity. It’s so easy to forget that perspectives and values change over time, and not everyone will be on the right side of history. Our heroes aren’t as great as we thought…and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. They are not perfect, but they are human. Maybe it’s more interesting that way.