“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience”
In July 2015, the long-awaited companion to Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill A Mockingbird exploded onto bookshelves, only to be met with mixed reviews by faithful Mockingbird devotees. In Go Set A Watchman, we re-meet the beloved Jean-Louise Finch (now 26 years old) as she is returning home to her old territory of Maycomb County for a habitual visit, only to find that this time her stay is somewhat more emotionally testing than normal, as she is confronted with more than Aunt Alexandra’s prudish comments on her slacks and loafers.
Set in the strained background of increasing civil rights tensions in America, Scout’s trip home revels a society still struggling with a quickly changing status quo. Watchman explores the discrimination and prejudice between the races from where Mockingbird left off, give or take 20 years. Yet, despite this backdrop of social history, humorous flashbacks and romantic sub-plot, the weight of the book is centred around Scout’s crucial but agonising lesson on moral autonomy. Framed around what Uncle Jack describes as Scout’s ‘birthing pains’, the reader has to bear the traumatic process of Scout separating herself and her ethical conscious from that of her father, Atticus, who is revealed to be entirely different from the Atticus we know and love, to the horror of myself and fellow Mockingbird fans.
In the same courtroom where Attics became a moral hero 20 years earlier, Scout sickeningly witnesses her father attend a meeting that is dangerously close to advocating segregation. Scout has a knee-jerk reaction to the sight, beginning her book-long battle against Atticus, as he is shown to be someone other than the moral idol she thought she grew up with. Along with Scout, the reader’s faith in Atticus is broken as before your eyes, the Atticus of Mockingbird is quickly broken down into a character who is unrecognisable. Despite describing himself as a “Jeffersonian Democrat” who only believes in civil rights for those who can bear the accompanying responsibilities, Atticus’ racial views rapidly take him beyond borderline racism as he shocking states that “white is white and black is black”. As Scout reacts to her world collapsing around her, she ends up fighting against herself, Atticus, Uncle Jack and the whole idea of Maycomb in a rather painful episode of soul-searching, desperately trying to understand this new world where her old role models are something she can no loner believe in.
Surprisingly, it is Uncle Jack, not Atticus who saves the day. After an emotional debate with her father while he calmly tries to explain his views on social emancipation, Dr Finch brings order back into the story with a bit of tough love for both his exhausted niece and the readers. Having your whole belief in others turned upside down is bearable Uncle Jack reasons to Scout, because after she has screamed at Atticus till she is blue in the face, she reduces him “to the status of a human being”. He rather insightfully points out that Scout’s (and our) mistake, is that for years she has confused Atticus with God, never seeing him as a ordinary person with human feelings and human failings. Once Scout metaphorically destroys Atticus, she is able to not only become a separate entity with an independent conscience, but also meet her father for the first time as a real person.
As a young woman whose moral views have been largely formed by the influence of my elder relatives, the message of needing to set your own moral bar apart from that of those you admire is a significant and important one. Everyone needs to go through that process of distinguishing where your parents’ opinions end and yours begin. Everyone needs to re-meet your old role models as real living people, and accept them for their humanness as well as their opinions which you might not agree with. This experience is emotionally tiring at best, but with Scout it is simply heart-breaking.
Yet despite the underpinning morale (which is a good one), the story itself is unsatisfying. After Scout’s realisation of her need to break down the affinity between her conscious and Atticus settles in, the book comes to a rather abrupt end. You are left feeling like the story is unfinished. Scout never sees Cal again after their one and only conversation in the whole book which ends rather upsettingly. The result of the legal case of Cal’s grandson that Atticus takes on is frustratingly left out. Her goodbye to Hank is not even given one page. We never find out if Scout finally gets over what happened to Jem. Overall, we are left with a lot of annoying loose ends.
But I think the mistake is not in Watchman, but in our expectations of it living up to the bar set by Mockingbird. Not only was Watchman written before Mockingbird, it was also never intended as a sequel, or a prequel, or for that matter published at all. Watchman should be seen as the first stab at a novel from which Lee extensively edited and redrafted to produce the canonical text that is To Kill A Mockingbird. It was a first attempt. Hence the frustrating, jarring narrative and deficient ending. Also, although both books are set in the same world, they tell very different moral lessons. To Kill A Mockingbird boldly challenged the moral arguments used to legitimise racial discrimination, and the prejudiced attitudes towards the black community in Southern America. Go Set A Watchman tackles a different, more personal moral question – that of our own moral independence. Scout is comically and rather correctly called by her uncle a “ordinary turnip-sized bigot”. Scout, like many of us, is guilty not of being racist, of being obstinately devoted to her own opinions, refusing to socialise and live amongst those who differ in opinions to herself. It is definitely a lesson that some still need to learn now; different opinions doesn’t mean people should be separated from others, or not associate with each other. It is a skill to interact with those you don’t fully agree with, but everyone must form their own opinions, and if not accept but allow other people to do the same – everyone must set their own moral watchman.
Despite these narrative and character differences, Scout remains essentially the same in Watchman as in Mockingbird as the standoffish tom-boy we know and love. She just undergoes a major personal evaluation and evolution. In this way, Watchman supplies more thought-material for self-reflection than Mockingbird. It illuminates a social history that was far from two sided, with those far and in between, who agree in part with one and in part with the other. But more importantly, it raises questions about where your opinions have come from, but also how they differ from those that have helped form them in the first place.
Not close to the canonical title of To Kill A Mockingbird, but when viewed independently, Go Set a Watchman provides plenty for the reader to mentally wrestle with and contemplate. An unsatisfying read but with a thought-provoking morale underneath all there is to disappoint – should be avoided for those who want to keep their childhood heroes intact.