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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

“Lawyers I suppose, were children once.” – Charles Lamb[i]

Initially written by Harper Lee in 1930, Go Set a Watchman was supposed to be the first novel to be published by the author. The book is set in the 1950s which was a time dominated by exponential post-war growth and the Civil Rights Movement. It accurately displays the reactions of the southern whites to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case which held that racial segregation of children in schools was inherently unequal. As seen in the book, various councils were set up by white legislators who made it their mission to defend racial segregation.[ii] The southern leaders were extremely against NAACP, a national organization that fought for the rights of the black and viewed it as an organization that has “filled the blacks with poison till it runs out of their ears.”[iii]

The sequel to the best-selling book To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is a story of a 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch who is now an eccentric woman and loves to have her way with things. The book begins with Jean Louise reminiscing about her family while she’s traveling back home to Maycomb, Alabama from New York City. Her 72-year-old, kind and wise father and role model, Atticus Finch has been reduced to a medium-sized man due to arthritis.[iv] He was a member of the Alabama State Legislature and a practicing attorney. Unlike most men, his way of living was simple and he believed in maintaining a balance in life. He was the same man in public as he was at home and he made sure even his enemies were fond of him. Back home in Maycomb, Jean comes across a pamphlet that is labelled as “The Black Plague” with a drawing of an anthropophagus Negro. Disgusted and shocked with the contents of the same, Jean Louise realizes Maycomb is going through turmoil and she has been left behind. She manages to sneak into the Maycomb Citizens’ Council Meeting and is horrified to witness the thoughts and ideas the “trash” of Maycomb believes in.[v] What manages to break her completely is that Atticus, her role model, and idol along with Hank, the man she loves are one of the staunchest members of the racist Council. Thus, begins her inner war as she realises everything that her father has taught her has been a lie and she was born with a defect- she is colour blind and sees no difference between blacks and whites.[vi] As she witnesses her family adopt practices that are the exact opposite of what they taught her, she is reminded of her childhood and begins to question everything she had learned as a child.

The novel primarily deals with the concept of having one’s own conscience. The reader follows Jean Louise on a journey filled with inner turmoil and an emotional war she is going through as her father shatters the beliefs she has always held true. The author emphasises the need to have one’s own “watchman” that signifies one’s own conscience and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. The protagonist begins to look at her father as an imperfect human with various flaws. Through Jean Louise, the reader is made aware of the need to be accommodative and to understand a situation from another perspective. Lee teaches the reader the importance of being able to differentiate between right and wrong and emphasizes the significance of having one’s own conscience. There is an evident growth of characters in the novel. Jean Louise transforms into a young woman who is ready to face the world as she manages to develop her own conscience that is separate from the moral code of her father. She grows from a young girl who is highly attached to her father into a woman who is independent and responsible for her own self. Despite viewing herself as someone with progressive notions, she is initially resistant to change and tries to hold on to her childhood.

The language of the novel makes it an interesting and easy read and allows the reader to formulate clarity of thought. The characters interact in their local dialect and there are numerous figures of speech being used. Despite the simple and descriptive usage of words, the author manages to create a sense of relatability so that the reader can fully understand the emotions of the character. One also comes across various verses and stanzas of poems in the book. The protagonist is forced to doubt and contemplate the very beliefs that defined her which makes her feel like an outsider in her own home.[vii] Atticus shows layers of contradictory attitudes which confuses the reader as to who the character actually is. The novel and idealistic character of Atticus is bizarrely tarnished which is disappointing and leaves the reader unsatisfied in the end.

Go Set a Watchman provides a glance into the political turmoil of the south due to the resistance to change and rigid mindsets of the white majority. It is through the novel that the reader understands the enormous resistance and backlash the black community faced and tells us not just about the condition of America in the 1950s but also the America of today. It manages to capture the sentiments of the protagonist who is trying to make sense of the beliefs her father holds while dealing with her own conscience. The book is an eye-opener and answers the questions one might have about the citizens of Alabama and their beliefs about racial segregation and manages to capture the broad sense of the local sentiment prevalent at the time. The blacks are looked at as filthy animals who are considered to be worse than cockroaches.[viii] Most people of Maycomb are racist and strongly believe in racial segregation. They view the NAACP with suspicion and believe that God made races to keep people apart.  As Jean Louise tries to make sense of the world that does not think like her, she is considered to be blind and naïve in the way she perceives the south. The book leaves the reader with a sense of hopelessness because there is no closure or explanation as to why Atticus strongly believes in racism and is not the ideal father that he used to be in To Kill a Mockingbird. The book is a perfect example of the relationship between fiction and society as it gives the reader an idea as to how the law functioned to protect only one group of people. The resistance to change and stereotypical ways of thinking are quite evident in the characters of the book.

Lee manages to portray her stories in a very clear and straightforward way without losing the interest of the reader. The suspense, emotions and anguish of the characters make Lee’s books gripping and difficult to put down. The best part is the relatability of her characters. One manages to feel the exact emotions as felt by the characters while they go through various dilemmas or exciting situations. Lee manages to capture the social circumstances and the setting of the late 30s. The racial discrimination and stereotypical thinking of the white citizenry are made quite evident with simple instances in various parts of the book. The book is an amalgamation of humour, anguish, betrayal, and liberation as experienced by Jean Louise. Lee manages to take the reader on a transformative journey of a young woman who is in the process of building her own conscience while all her beliefs are shattered.


[i] H. Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

[ii] H. Lee, Go Set A Watchman, 103

[iii] Ibid, at 166

[iv] Ibid, at 17

[v] Ibid, at 105

[vi] Ibid, at 122

[vii] Ibid, at 173

[viii] Ibid, at 108

This book review has been authored by Hunar, Assistant Editor at RSRR.


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