4 Important Elements of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” that Readers are Overlooking

After 55 years of waiting for a follow-up novel to Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, readers finally have the new book in their hands, and many are shocked by certain elements of it. The most unpleasant surprise in Go Set a Watchman for many readers is that the beloved Atticus Finch, one of the great American literary heroes of integrity and justice, is an aging racist in the new book.

I spent the entire day reading Go Set a Watchman, but rather than do a typical review, I want to focus on four issues I think are being ignored in the early reviews and discussions of this novel.

1. I believe it is a mistake to see Atticus Finch as simply older and more racist than he was in Mockingbird. Instead, I think he is essentially a different character in Watchman than the reconceived Atticus in Mockingbird. In other words, there are two Atticuses, created by the author to fit the needs of the particular book.  

Why is Atticus Finch so different in Watchman than he is in Mockingbird? The publication history of the two novels is crucial in answering that question. Lee submitted Watchman to her editor in the 1950’s. The editor, enjoying the childhood flashbacks the most, urged Lee to write a novel set 20 years earlier, focusing on those elements of the story. In doing so, I believe Lee created an alternate version of Atticus Finch. He is a different character in Mockingbird than in Watchman, though carved from the same materials.

Mockingbird and Watchman are not really sequels or prequels to one another. They are separate treatments of the same core material. Even the outcome of the trial that is central to Mockingbird is different when it is referred to in Watchman. Lee never expected to publish both books. She did not need to keep the characters completely consistent between the two books. She had the freedom to adjust the characters to meet the needs of the particular book. One implication of this for readers is that if they don’t like the Atticus in Watchman, that doesn’t need to “ruin” the Atticus in Mockingbird for them. They can choose whichever conception of the character they like best.

The Scout character in Watchman, who is more commonly called Jean Louise, also strikes me as significantly different from the Scout character in Mockingbird. It’s not simply that she is twenty years older in Watchman, it’s that I don’t think she is simply a grown-up version of the Mockingbird Scout. She is a reconceived character. She is not radically different in the two books, but different in ways that novelists often change the personalities and other traits of their characters in later drafts of the stories.

2. If Harper Lee had written Go Set a Watchman now instead of in the 1950’s, I think there would be an even greater outcry against it from readers.

If we didn’t know that Lee wrote Watchman before she wrote Mockingbird, then I think the changes in the character of Atticus Finch would be even harder for readers to accept. If Watchman had been written in the 21st century, I think readers would have protested it as a cynical modern treatment of a beloved 20th-century American hero. Why, they would have complained, did Lee turn the justice-loving man of integrity of Mockingbird into the racist cranky-old-man of Watchman?

As it stands, I find it fascinating that Lee saw that the character could be written as both of those men. The relationship between Scout and Atticus is more complicated in Watchman than it is in Mockingbird, but what is fiction for if not to shed light on such intricacies of human motivations and relationships? We have had 55 years of Atticus as an unblemished saint. Now we also have him as a fascinating and contradictory man of his times.

3. Go Set a Watchman is not only about race. Its brilliance extends to other areas that are not getting enough attention.

Much of what I have read in reviews and on social media about Watchman has focused on the racial issues the book raises, but when I read the novel, many other elements of it also stood out to me. Like Mockingbird, this novel richly captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century. It brings to life the feel of what it is like for Jean Louise to return from living in New York City and be thrust into the family life, church life, and social life of the place she grew up in. Lee is a masterful storyteller who uses humor and passion in creating vivid, memorable scenes.

One of my favorite chapters appears about two-thirds of the way into the novel, when Jean Louise’s Aunt Alexandra hosts “The Coffee,” a reunion of Jean Louise’s former classmates and other women of the town, almost none of whom Jean Louise wants to see. The social satire of this gathering targets the way the women dress, the way they chatter on about their husbands and children, the way they reveal their prejudices, and other details of Southern life. It is beautifully handled and worth reading the novel for. It shows that Lee was a masterful novelist of manners, among her many other gifts as a writer.

4. The release of Watchman reveals that Lee owes her editor a big thanks for compelling her to set aside this book and write Mockingbird instead. Watchman is a good book, but by itself, it would not have become a classic.

Most readers’ first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird is in a high school literature class, where it has been a standard text for decades. The book has all the features that create a beloved classic—a compelling young narrator who shows courage, grit, and humor in confronting challenges young readers can relate to, a plot that offers conflicts that are universal in scope, a memorable setting, an engaging writing style, and other elements.

Watchman is also an entertaining and well-written novel, but it is much more targeted toward adults. I believe that if it had been released first instead of Mockingbird, it would have enjoyed some success and then gradually faded into the literary background. Lee’s editor’s instincts were correct in pushing the author to bring to the forefront Scout’s earlier story. This shows the crucial and often overlooked role editors play in the creation of literature.

20 thoughts on “4 Important Elements of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” that Readers are Overlooking

  1. I appreciate the approach you took in examining the two books considering the history of how and when they were published, and how you called attention to the critical role of the editor. I’m looking forward to digging into the book myself, hopefully soon!

    • Allison, I am not surprised that you liked the point about the importance of editors! Where would we be without good editors? I think you will enjoy the novel. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. I love your analysis here, Joe. The role of the editor is crucial. I greatly enjoy both books, and I believe both are equally good (despite some editing issues with Watchman), but for different reasons. Watchman would have played well in the South, but not nationally. Mockingbird, while idealized some might argue, plays well to a national audience. I fear that people will continue to judge Watchman based on their love for Mockingbird and not on its own merits.

    • Dave, that’s a good point about readers having trouble judging Watchman on its own merits rather than seeing it only in its connection to Mockingbird. I would love to talk to a reader who read Watchman without ever having read Mockingbird. It would be interesting to see how the novel comes across on its own. I haven’t run across any reader like that yet, but as time goes by, maybe more readers will approach these books “out of order.”

      • I think I’ll volunteer to be that reader.

        I don’t recall reading Mockingbird in school, and am mostly familiar with it through Berkeley Breathed’s references to it in Bloom County and Outland; those are enough to convince me that it’s worth reading, though I’ve never actually bothered to.

        The narrative around Watchman is fascinating (author’s only published work, famous literature, a lost related work coming to light with the author still alive) and I’ve been following it even though I don’t remember ever having read the original.

        I have bought both on iBooks; I’d planned to read Mockingbird first, but now I think I’ll start with Watchman instead. I can post a note here when I’ve finished it, if you want to discuss it?

          • Well, that’s a quick read: I finished ‘Go Set a Watchman’ in maybe 5 hours today, mostly while waiting on computers at work.

            I’ll be sending Joseph some thoughts on Watchman as a standalone work; if he’d like to use it as a separate post we can discuss it in the comments to that.

            I’ll hold off starting Mockingbird for a bit to allow for some conversation first.

  4. Joseph, I agree with what you say about the book being about much more than racism and would be for an adult audience more than teens. Scout has returned from New York and has idealized Atticus and her father. It’s about everyone who grows up and finds out their role models are flawed human beings. Can we still love them? Should we still love them? Older students will identify with Jean Louise more. It wasn’t until I left my home town I realized mine was a “Sunset City,” and that there were thousands in America, meaning blacks could work in our city but would be escorted out before sunset to a neighboring town to make their way home. Great review!

    • Mary, thanks for your perspective on this book. It will be interesting to see whether or not teachers use it in their classrooms. I think ideally it would be great if students could study both novels together, but I know that in my own literature courses I don’t always have the luxury to teach multiple novels by the same author because there are so many other authors we need to include. But reading one of these books may inspire many readers to pick up the other one on their own.

  5. Really enjoyed reading this article, Dr. Bentz. It’s convinced me to go out and buy the book. I’ve been iffy on whether or not to read it considering all of the fuss over whether or not Lee actually wanted Watchman to ever be published or if someone took advantage of her. Still unsure on that point, but I think it’s worth a read.

    • Mike,
      Yes, I did enjoy her perspectives on the two novels. I think she makes some good points about racism. I don’t agree with her speculation that the reason Lee wrote no books after “Mockingbird” is that she might have felt that the novel was “untrue” or less forthright than “Watchman.” Like most reviewers, I think Le Guin is trying to reconcile the two books, and my own view is that they don’t need to be reconciled. Because Lee thought only one of the books would ever be published, when she sat down to write the “Mockingbird” manuscript after having written “Watchman,” she was free to make Atticus and Scout whatever she needed them to be to fit the needs of that particular novel, even if the new portrayals contradicted her earlier manuscript. I know I am in the minority in my view on this, but I think novelists do this all the time as they write various drafts of novels. The characters change, but usually readers see only the final version. Now we have been given the privilege of seeing two different conceptions of characters. To me, it’s not that Atticus was racist all along but that “Mockingbird” hid it. It’s that the Atticus in “Mockingbird” was one conception of the character, and the Atticus in “Watchman” is another. Same with Scout. Thanks for the link to this review.

  6. Hello, Dr. Bentz,
    I think your comments on the book Go Set a Watchman are interesting comments, and provide a good perspective on the book.

    To Kill a Mockingbird was assigned to me three times for reading throughout my pre-college schooling, and I even has the opportunity to perform as Atticus in a theater adaptation of the play (I remember the actors for Jem and Scout both being taller than me, which made for some subtle comedy). It is a book that has been burned into the educational consciousness.

    I think the outrage over Atticus’ character makes sense. What does it mean for us when a paragon of racial tolerance and equality becomes a bigoted man? Does conscience only go so far? Are we not able to escape the bonds of our time period’s assumptions and evils?

    I also think that the outrage might be misconstrued. As you stated, Go Set a Watchman was written first, so it’s not fair to think of this as a corruption of Atticus’ character. Your argument that the Atticus of each book are sort of parallel versions of each other in different universes also works well–it explains the apparent transition from an ally of the Civil Rights movement to a ranting racist.

  7. I’m quite late with my response here, Joe, but I enjoyed your evaluation of the book. I really loved the first half, mainly the lively voice, humor, and zippy dialogue. The last half lost me much of the time and seemed to plod along, and the ending was disappointing. I like your take on the idea that the two works do not have to be used in evaluating one another, though I find it difficult to do so.

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