While watching an old episode of The Good Wife on Amazon Prime the other night, Alicia Florrick commented that To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) made many lawyers. It reminded me that I had recently read Go Set a Watchman (2015), the newly released “prequel” to that classic and monumental American novel by Harper Lee. I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the publication of Go Set a Watchman and much discussion about whether or not it is a “good” novel.
I’m going to stand on my own and say that I sincerely enjoyed Go Set a Watchman, and I saw value in its message. Many have lamented the fact that Atticus is a racist in the novel, and that it isn’t as well written as To Kill a Mockingbird. However, it is extremely well written, even if somewhat like a draft, and Atticus’s faults make sense, especially when Jean Louise must fight against them in order to stand on her own two feet.
The novel is set from Jean Louise’s point of view as an adult, and she comes home to Maycomb from New York City to visit. She has a romance with Henry, and Jem is dead. Jean Louise, still called Scout by some, must navigate her relationship with this man who wants to marry her and the needs of her ailing and older father, her annoying but good-hearted Aunt Alexandra, and her uncle Dr. Finch. He ultimately acts as Jean Louise’s mentor into adulthood, and he helps her to understand the complexity of social problems, like good ’ol boys networks, white supremacy, poverty, and inefficiency among other things.
What Jean Louise learns in the denouement of this book is that her idealism is not possible. In many ways, her journey and self discovery and her shattering of Atticus as a “perfect” role model reflect the same journey Jack takes in All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Jack, too, is an idealist, who believes that the only things that are real are in the life of the mind. Similarly, Jean Louise holds to a form of idealism, thinking that her ideals of human behavior are right and must somehow play out in real life. She discovers that this cannot be, although she may be right about how we ought to behave, and while it is shattering to her and to us as readers, it is true. We may hold to sentiments and equality and ideals that are good and true and needed, but they may not always play out the way we wish them to. Our visions of the mind aren’t all that’s to be considered.
Atticus teaches her this, with his imperfections, and she gives in to the realization that he is not her strength or her rock, but that she is her own person with her own convictions. In many ways, the narrative is empowering in terms of forming one’s own identity and in terms of learning to stand up for what one believes, no matter what kind of resistance one may face, especially from beloved family members.
I enjoyed the read. The writing was gorgeous. I learned more about Scout and Jem and Dill and their childhood (and high school!) adventures. Go Set a Watchman is a decent and interesting companion to the quintessential American novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It does not reach it, but it compliments it in a way that I appreciated.