Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee




For the past two years of my school life I had to study the world famous To Kill a Mocking by Harper Lee. Unlike many of my fellow classmates who – after having to analyse chapter after chapter of the book – disliked it I absolutely adored it. The novel looked at ideas that back then were incredibly taboo but are still relevant today and they’re developed in such a beautiful subtle way. Not only is racism explored but sexism and classism too. Personally I enjoyed finding the references to these more subtle themes. It was for these reasons that I was so excited to read Go Set a Watchman.

One thing I think people should remember about this book is that it was a rejected draft and that Lee refused to let it be edited before it’s publication last week. The story that ends up in our hands is the same one that she wrote back in the late 1950’s,  for me it’s interesting to see what she wrote before all the edits and re-writes. It’s like a painting before all the pencil lines are rubbed out. It’s fascinating to see how the characters, the story and the setting’s history developed from how it is in Go Set a Watchman to what it is in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The main thing regarding the character development – which if you’re reading this then I’m sure you’ll know about already – is Atticus’ decent into racism. I was a bit worried about this as I just didn’t think I’d understand how a character so morally correct in To Kill a Mockingbird could change that dramatically. However after reading it myself I realised I had worried for no reason; I could understood it, I just didn’t agree.  Set in the mid 1950’s the Civil Rights Movement had many important victories in the Supreme Court. Within the story we’re told that this movement has come a lot closer to home and for many of the residents of Maycomb they’re struggling to come to terms with this, Atticus in particular. In To Kill a Mockingbird the work Atticus does to fight racism is described as ‘baby-steps’ so when the movement begins to take leaps it starts to scare him. Maybe I’m wrong though, maybe he was a racist all along. I’m just going to have to read To Kill a Mockingbird again.

The plot in this book is very peculiar; in the sense that there isn’t very much of it. In fact the plot is actually very limited. Lee focused predominantly on themes, but unlike Mockingbird Lee decided to explore them through the development of characters and the comparison to earlier messages shown through flashbacks. The use of structure to do this was brilliant, Lee always knew where to place things for more impact, particularly the flashbacks. I do think that more plot was needed in order to make this book more substantial. But really this book is about Scout. She’s as sassy as she was when she was younger and still a tomboy, she has developed a more feminine side to her which is brought out by her partner Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton which is nice to see. I think the most powerful parts of this book are the times when we see Jean Louise trying to wrap her head around her father’s actions as it really hits her hard.

Go Set a Watchman is again about the loss of innocence, it’s about learning to be your own person, having your own beliefs and disagreeing  with your family and your home but learning to be tolerant. It’s about hitting your head on the car and blaming the car but learning that it’s you that has to duck.


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