by Fran 🏅🇬🇧🇬🇧🏅
A Critical Analysis of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman
|Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was shrouded in mystery and intrigue, long before it hit the shelves in July of 2015. Despite being described as the long awaited sequel to Lee’s critically acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), in actuality, it is no such thing.
Indeed, completed in 1957, Go Set a Watchman was put forward by Lee as a first attempt at publication. However, in its time, the novel was not accepted, with the publishers requesting that Lee concentrate on younger versions of the same set of characters. Thus, Go Set a Watchman was hidden away, kept secret for over fifty years.
The following pages will seek to analyse this new historical novel from Harper Lee, studying the plot, writing and characters in order to decide whether or not her work achieved what it originally set out to do.
Go Set a Watchman sees the main character, Jean-Louise Finch, travel from New York City to her hometown of Maycomb County to visit her aging father, Atticus Finch. During her visit, Jean-Louise comes to discover some disturbing truths about Atticus and the town she grew up in. Indeed, her values and memories dive into a sea of doubt when she realises that Atticus defends the need for racial segregation and has previously attended Ku Klux Klan meetings. Prior to this, Jean-Louise regarded her father as a civil rights hero, with deep-seated anti-racist beliefs.
Written predominantly in the third person, the plot of Go Set a Watchman does not stretch far beyond Jean-Louise’s struggle to come to terms with her discoveries. As if to highlight the social, relationship and inner conflict critical to the plot, Lee makes use of flashbacks to Jean-Louise’s childhood and teenage years. Whilst these provide the reader with a better understanding of what Jean-Louise is dealing with, they also confuse the reader with a swift change in point-of-view. For example:
“She was sitting at a table behind Mr Cunningham’s ice cream shop, eating from a wax-paper container. […]
Jem parked his fishing car over there, we dug earthworms by the back fence, I planted a bamboo shoot one time and we fought it for twenty years.” (Lee, 2015, 206)
Such inconsistencies in writing style, leave the reader struggling to find their footing throughout the 280-page novel. Indeed, in general, the writing is not that of a highly regarded author who has edited until their fingers bled. Rather, the standard of writing is that of a good first draft, with somewhat sketchy scenes and obviously unsystematic narration shifts.
Arguably the biggest downfall of Go Set a Watchman is the characters. As a standalone novel, the characters are excellently portrayed: they are believable, well formed and the reader is drawn into the story enough to start to care about Jean-Louise’s feelings and, even, try to understand Atticus’ standpoint.
However, the vast majority of Go Set a Watchman’s readers will know and love the characters of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite both books having many of the same characters, they are portrayed very differently. Especially in the case of Atticus Finch. Therefore, no matter how well formed, the characters of Go Set a Watchman will, no doubt, dishearten and, perhaps, anger many of its readers.
Notwithstanding the technical weaknesses, Go Set A Watchman does boast a much deeper strength. That is, of course, Lee’s attempt to inform the reader about the gravity of racism. Certainly, Lee forces her reader to look at the issue of racism more directly and understand that it lurks beneath even the calmest waters and rears its head in the most unexpected places. The novel does this incredibly well and, at its heart, offers a captivating and distinguished viewpoint on a fundamental issue.
Before concluding, it is important to note that there is definite uncertainty within the literary arena with regards to whether or not Harper Lee, herself, wanted to publish Go Set a Watchman. It is thought, that once the novel was rejected in 1957, Lee put the manuscript away and never looked at it again. It is only after her death that it was rediscovered and published. If this were the case, the manuscript discovered would have been in a very raw, unedited state. Therefore, as an author, Lee cannot be held accountable for the technical and structural weaknesses discussed above, having not had the opportunity to edit.
On the whole, however, the messages and values Lee wanted to display remain in tact. Thus, Go Set a Watchman is an admirable piece of work that highlights issues the world still faces regarding race and segregation. Certainly, Go Set a Watchman will no doubt be used as an important text in schools and universities, alongside To Kill a Mockingbird.
• Lee, H., 2015, Go Set a Watchman, London: William Heinemann