Reading Between the Lines of Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee tapped into the zeitgeist of American culture when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. The book crossed racial boundaries when a white lawyer defended an innocent black man in Alabama during the 1930s. We, the readers, view this world through the eyes of Scout when she’s between six and nine years old. Reading Between the Lines of Go Set a Watchman

I just finished Go Set a Watchman, which is the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. As most of you know, it was just published last year, and the circumstances surrounding the publication were questionable. “Why now?” is the question most of us are still asking. The hypothetical answers to which are all negative. 

The hope that To Kill a Mockingbird embodies, however nuanced it was, completely shatters in the sequel. This sequel dispels the illusion of progress and the idea that we as a country are working through our racist roots.

Scout is a little older and none the wiser after living in Manhattan. Upon returning to Maycomb, she’s confronted with racist remarks by almost everyone. She’s kicking and screaming the whole time and finally admits to being born color blind, metaphorically speaking. She was taught to identify people by their names and occupations growing up, rather than skin color. But all this changed, or never was–it’s sort of hard to tell. 

Her father, Atticus, the hero of the first book, is deeply and unapologetically flawed in Go Set a Watchman. Just like Scout, I turned the pages and kept thinking, “there’s got to be an explanation for this.” Atticus Finch runs the Maycomb County’s Citizen Council Meeting and introduces a racist speaker whom addresses the crowd with his racist propaganda. Atticus is guilty by association, sure, but I just kept thinking there was a reason he was there. 

The reason was that he did belong there, and it makes my stomach turn.

It’s sad when heroes let us down. 

In my case, I grew up just as color blind as Scout. I was raised in Nevada and California, and we just didn’t think about race that much, especially not in terms of black or white because we were surrounded by so many different cultures. I’m thankful for parents that never saw the world in terms of color and just taught me to love and serve people. 

I experienced a cruel awakening to the realities of race in my twenties, just like Scout. It was after I was already married and happened in all kinds of different ways, here in the states and overseas. Most of it was subtle and passive aggressive, while other instances were bold and direct. 

It’s hard to imagine what kinds of questions my son will ask about it all.  

The greatest take away from this novel is something we can only learn from experience. Just because we are blind to ugly parts in the world, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But you can’t make change with your eyes closed.

So no matter how tragic it is to see Atticus Finch fall from the good graces of America, we need reality more. I’m so thankful for books like this. I’m thankful Scout’s rose-colored glasses were stepped on. 

It’s not wise to believe in any fallen man’s essential goodness, fictional character or otherwise. We are all deeply flawed, and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can work toward change.   

What about you? Have any of you read the novel yet? Are you saddened by the plot or the publication of it? 


 

See some of my other recent reads here, and in case you missed it, check out the best first lines of Murakami’s stories

7 thoughts on “Reading Between the Lines of Go Set a Watchman”

  1. I agree. I think this is what Harper Lee originally intended for her book to be like. Go Set A Watchman was her first book and Kill A Mockingbird was taken it from it. I think she wanted to show that life-shattering moment when as an adult you see how sheltered you were as a child.

    1. My understanding was that this book was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was never meant to be released. I also read that Harper Lee worked on the draft for almost twenty years to transform it into the bestseller we know and love. However, recently, I keep reading reviews saying it’s a sequel.
      Not having read it myself, does it make more sense if you think of it as the original version of To Kill a Mockingbird?

    2. Looking at it as a sequel, I feel, would be wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird was originally supposed to be inside Go Set A Watchman. So, if anything, we can see the full picture of what Harper Lee intended–that being the loss of childhood and growing up. In that way, it’s amazing!

    3. I agree that it’s amazing. I think based on the timing of its publication and the way it’s set after TKM, it would be hard not to treat it like a sequel.

  2. I’m in the middle of the gut-wrenching part of the book. Atticus has always been one of my favorite literary characters, and I feel like I’m mourning the loss of him right along with Jean Louise. I appreciate your thoughts on the necessity of books like this – even if reality is a little hard to swallow.

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