“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.”
These words, spoken by Dr Jack Finch, brother to Atticus Finch and uncle to Jean Louise Finch, point to a central theme in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. To say the words are pivotal in the climax of the novel may be too trite as they form part of a larger exposition from Uncle Jack tying together many of the book’s themes, including individuality, societal cohesion, early civil rights activism and making decisions that, despite their apparent horror and hypocrisy, may, if the gamble pays off, establish longer term benefits.
Anyone who has read (or viewed) The Help by Kathryn Stockett, could be forgiven for assuming it was based on Go Set a Watchman: Southern woman in her mid-twenties returns from New York where she has been experiencing northern ways. She tries to integrate herself into her old society, one in which she never felt wholly comfortable in the first place, but still had good standing as a member of her family. She ends up confronting a significant parent about racist attitudes.
And this is the big story for fans of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The headlines say Atticus is revealed as racist. There is room for this interpretation, though I think it is erroneous. Instead, Watchman is more about exploring the methods employed in working for the ideals espoused by Atticus in Mockingbird and idealised by both the child Scout and the adult Jean Louise Finch: not judging a person until you’ve walked in their shoes, equality and justice regardless of skin colour or creed.
However, the tension in Watchman is created by more complex issues than in Mockingbird, despite the less complex plot. (There is no Boo Radley sub-plot here, although her romantic relationship with Henry Clinton serves to expand on the themes of identity and integration while also linking to delightful and skilfully woven vignettes from Jean Louise’s childhood and teenage years). There are more specific allusions to historical incidents – Montgomery, a particular Supreme Court decision, the activities of the NAACP and the development of citizens’ councils – many of which will escape most readers without study outside the text. The overall threat in the novel, as seen by Atticus and others, is the legislative intrusion by the north into the south, potentially bringing progress at a rate his community cannot handle.
These complex issues of the 1950s need more complex solutions than in Mockingbird, just as Jean Louise’s issues are more complex. Atticus can’t fight a court case or shoot a rabid dog to fix things here. He also can no longer send Scout to bed with a story and a tidy maxim. Whereas Atticus wrapped up the lessons for Scout at the end of Mockingbird, it is Jack who explains what the brothers have been hoping for and even planning for Scouts’ next stage of development. Some may find this condescending to read about two men still instructing a 26 year old woman in such a conspiratorial manner.
In short, Jean Louise learns that sometimes you need to work within the system alongside horrid people against a common enemy in order to achieve more stable transitions to equality. There is a lot for Scout and us to rail against here and a debate worth having – more debate than Mockingbird provokes, which I say is a good thing. Personally for Jean Louise, she must learn that her father is not perfect. It is a fitting lesson as, with the release of Watchman, Atticus Finch, this epitome of reliable, wise, settling fatherhood will come under a great deal of scrutiny by us all over the next few months and years. Lee writes a wonderful passage which could be seen as prophetic, as if she knew we would also need these words to articulate the moment. Again, Uncle Jack is her mouthpiece:
“You confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings – I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”
Jack and Atticus see her confrontation with her father as the final step in becoming a fully grown woman. Like a character in a Bruce Springsteen song, Jean Louise had been running from the people of Maycomb, rather than accepting them and working with them to improve their community.
“Instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ’em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.”
It’s not all so serious. There are plenty of humourous moments, especially in the childhood vignettes which prompted Lee’s original publishers to request she expand into the novel which would become To Kill a Mockingbird. Fans of Mockingbird (and I count myself one, having deemed it to be a “perfect” novel) will feel instantly at home, not only with the setting of Maycomb twenty years later but with Lee’s writing style. Jean Louise acts consistently with her 6-year old self, reacting emotionally before investigating further, often internalising fears before she fully understands them, eliciting both empathy and a smile from readers. We learn the fates of Jem and Dill and we reunite with Aunt Alexandra who is a force and constant presence as an aide to the aging and ailing Atticus. Calpurnia has moved on, but makes an appearance in one of the more heart-wrenching scenes in the books. Mr Cunningham returns, selling ice-cream out of the old Finch house.
Many will wonder how this book would have been received had it been released prior to or even immediately after Mockingbird. Is it a novel for our time? Perhaps, with modern news about police and race relations in America and disputes over Confederate flags, HarperCollins has an argument that Watchman and the complex issues it presents, along with Atticus’ message about murky solutions to these, may be well-timed indeed.
As a long-time fan and teacher of Harper Lee, I highly recommend Go Set a Watchman. It is not a perfect book, but it is an exceptional piece of work in its own right and it does nothing to take away from the perfection of To Kill a Mockingbird. But, for those who are not sure, I’ll echo Atticus’ loving (and new) words to Jean Louise: “As you please.”