Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
Scout Finch is all grown up. The central figure from Harper Lee’s award-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is now twenty-six and going by her given name of Jean Louise Finch. In Lee’s long awaited sequel, we get to experience a different side to Jean Louise’s family life and their place in fifties Alabama.
When Jean Louise returns home from New York for a holiday, she is met by her brother’s friend, Henry Clinton, who has repeatedly asked her to marry him. Henry is a promising lawyer in the practice of her father Atticus, and was always considered a member of the Finch family, especially after the untimely death of Jean Louise’s only sibling, Jem. But they were not blood-kin and soon Henry had designs upon the strong-willed young Finch gal, mostly reciprocated. Jean Louise’s father appears to be encouraging the match.
Her stern aunt, Alexandra, is not. She is opposed to Jean Louise marrying beneath her. Oh, she likes Henry, or Hank as she calls him, just fine. But does not consider him to be of a type for her niece. The Finches are from old stock, don’t ya know. This inherent discrimination within the social strata of even the white population in Alabama plays a strong role in the theme of this book.
The central theme, however, is that of racism. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defended a young black man who was charged with raping a white woman. He was successful and an innocent man was saved, not a normal occurrence in that part of the USA during those times. Yet, in Go Set A Watchman, we see a different side to Atticus. It’s one that asks questions about the changes in society that brought both blacks and whites closer to a par.
Atticus Finch and indeed Henry Clinton are opposed to the actions of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples). This group are agitating for equals rights for the oppressed black community in Alabama and the resident white population don’t like it one bit. Jean Louise, of course, is horrified to find that her beloved father holds such views. Her entire sense of herself and her past is thrown into turmoil as she comes to understand that her father is, in his own way, racist. She is also heart-broken at the realisation that Henry is not the person she thought he was.
In this novel, which was published in 2015, Harper Lee asks some hard questions of the reader via her characters. A hero from her first book is now revealed to be not as morally sound as was first thought. Perhaps that’s why the critics responded poorly to this story. But, in presenting the truth about the reasoning for many whites when helping the black people, Harper Lee has given the story the complexity it deserves.
As Jean Louise’s uncle, Dr Jack Finch, elucidates, the Civil War was not fought for the right to own slaves. It was fought because the southerners didn’t want to be told what to do and how to live by northerners. They fought to preserve their independence and way of life aside from slave ownership. This, concludes Jack, is why the white population of good men such as Atticus and Henry are again railing against northern directives. It’s a shaky theory that was always going to upset many of Harper Lee’s fans and understandably so.
As Jean Louise tries to figure out how to proceed, she is faced with the option of turning away from the remains of her family for ever. When she visits a town meeting and hears a renowned racist and white supremacist use disgraceful language against black people, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics, and all while her father and lover stand quietly, she is disgusted and physically ill. Her problems are compounded by her great love for her father and aunt. She sees that they are not bad people. They are simply a product of their upbringing.
Atticus tries to mitigate his actions, or lack thereof, by claiming in his good-natured and erudite way, that should the black population be given equal rights then there would be chaos. He believes that black people are not yet ready for such a promotion within wider society. Harper Lee does seem to be tentatively suggesting that black people are less civilised and therefore incapable of becoming incorporated into what white people see as civilised society.
Although Atticus is but one character, his voice is central and authoritative and would appear, in some small way, as the voice of the author. Perhaps that is a mis-reading by this reviewer, but it does appear that way. It becomes easy to see why this book failed to set the literary world on fire. However, even allowing for such a fundamental flaw, Go Set A Watchman is a good read. It’s light and insightful and does ask uncomfortable questions of the reader. It’s easy to condemn a rampant knuckle-dragging racist when they start spewing their hate-filled messages. But it becomes more difficult to ignore the voice of a reasonable and educated legal defender of the persecuted. Atticus Finch tears at the fabric of any relaxed and unquestioned moral stance that would condemn obvious racist attitudes.
Jean Louise, however, is not to be moved, even if she does relent a tad in her opposition to her family’s position. The battle within the Finch family becomes symptomatic of the conflict within white society in Alabama. There are those who feel as Atticus does; they oppose any attempts to impose northern values upon southern people. They sympathise with the plight of black people but wish any changes to be enacted over a much greater period of time, if at all. They believe white people to be more cultured and better bred, but are still strongly opposed to any behaviour that would demean the black population. Could they be referred to as reluctant advocates of change, or perhaps diluted racists, or even self-delusional supremacists, traditionalists searching for specious reasons to avoid full integration and equality with their black neighbours?
Jean Louise, on the other hand, is a no nonsense black and white (no pun intended) defender of equality. She doesn’t care that black communities are currently rough and raw and perhaps uncivilised. She feels that advancement will assist black people in becoming better citizens. In giving them greater opportunities, Jean Louise is of the opinion that they can live as politely as whites, or at least those whites she is familiar with. Jean Louise’s viewpoint is one that most people, hopefully, will adhere to today. The Finch family then, is a microcosm for Alabaman society.
Unfortunately, Harper Lee does not adequately express this dilemma in her novel. She leaves a lot of ambiguity in the attitudes of the Finch family. Her conclusions per character are not clear. The reader is left wondering what Jean Louise is thinking towards the end. It may be that the answers are there and this reviewer missed them. But if they are, then they are open to interpretation. This book would have been helped by the author having a clearer idea of what she was trying to say, or perhaps taking the time to express her ideas in better manner.
Go Set A Watchman was published as a sequel but was originally part of the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. This may explain its incomplete feel. It’s a contentious book in that many commentators are of the opinion that it should not have been published at all. It is said that Harper Lee was not of sound mind when the decision was taken to present Go Set A Watchman as a separate novel. Her friends, at least some of them, felt that it could taint her, earlier, widely acclaimed story. Perhaps they are correct in that or, maybe they just don’t like the truth about Atticus Finch, a man who was held as a beacon for human rights by wider society, but turns out to be a good man with a warped and inherited view of the place of black people in Alabama. The story is certainly muddled and deserves some criticism. But with hindsight, Rebel Voice feels that it should have been published, if only to give us the full story.
An Irish comparison, in terms of an actual character, would be that of John Mitchel, the rebel editor who was exiled to Australia for his ‘seditious activity’ in Ireland. Mitchel later made his way to the US where he received a hero’s welcome. Sadly, however, Mitchel declared himself to believe that blacks were inferior to whites. His three sons fought for the Confederacy. Two died and the third was wounded. Mitchel was in Ireland when the Great Famine killed approximately one million of the most marginalised. He spoke out loudly on behalf of the oppressed there and was punished for it. He was an educated man, yet ignored the obvious contradiction in his later stance towards slaves, which is what his fellow country men and women effectively were. It can be difficult to understand how such people reconcile their humanity towards one group whilst discriminating against another.
Sult scale rating: 6.5 out of 10. Go Set A Watchman is a decent read. It’s not on a par with To Kill A Mockingbird, but is still enjoyable nonetheless. It’s let down a little by a failure to clearly set out the moral and social positions of both Atticus and eventually Jean Louise. It becomes understandable as to why this novel did not get the plaudits that Harper Lee was possible of. Read it, though, and contribute to the ongoing debate about this tale.
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