I thoroughly enjoyed reading Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman. I admire her adept ability to create characters that become vividly alive and many of them lived in my head long after I finished the book. An impressive quality in her writing is how she dealt with deep, difficult social, emotional and philosophical issues at a level of comprehension that gives the reader insight and understanding. The blending of the two novels To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman was skilful. The flashbacks to the past helped locate the characters into their present situations.
The courtroom scene where Jean Louise is shocked to see her father and Henry sitting at the same table as a virulent racist Mr. O’Hanlon at a council meeting that aims “to uphold the Southern Way of Life“, dedicated to the preservation of segregation with no niggers (in their schools or hospitals) is a turning point in her life. It also illustrates the growth of the American Civil Rights Movement in the South. Interestingly 15 January is the day that the Americans commemorate Martin Luther King.
She feels that her father “the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her […], had betrayed her publicly, grossly and shamelessly.” She leaves the courtroom and feels sick to her stomach and alienated from her town.
Her emotional world is in turmoil and she turns to her Uncle John who has always been a voice of reason in her life and shares her crisis with him. ”What’s been happening, Uncle Jack? What is the matter with Atticus? I think Hank and Aunty have lost their minds and I know I’m losing mine.” John’s explanation does not satisfy her and he makes her promise to come to him when her heart breaks in two.
Harper Lee’s fervent description of how Scouts’ identity and social reality is undergoing a complete breakdown that includes her realizing why she could never marry Hank and that her father has “driven [her] out of [her] home” leaving her “in no-man’s-land.” Added to her confusion was why she was rejected by Calpurnia when she visited her in the coloured residential area considering that after her mother died of a heart attack, Calpurnia helped her father parent her with love and affection. She feels blind:
I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces.
She feels that the minister should have provided her with a watchman to lead her around and declare “what he seeth”.
What was also fascinating for me was the description of the process of separating oneself from our belief systems and values that we gain during our upbringing, e.g. when Jean Louise does confront her father she accuses him of cheating her by sowing seeds of believing that all men are equal. That he “neglected to tell [her] that [they] were naturally better than Negroes.” She tells him that now there is “no place for [her] now [in Maycomb]”. She packs and is about to leave when Uncle John arrives and tells her to stop feeling sorry for herself and slaps her on her face. She calms down and listens to him. She realizes that although she does see the world differently to everyone around her it was still possible to be part of her family and community. “Jean Louise […] you are your own person now.” John says to her:
Every man’s an island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.
Once again the discussion at the book club meeting is bound to be full of interesting topics raised in this novel.
I give the book an 8.