Some Notes on What Happens in Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Jean Louise returns to her home in a small southern town to visit her ailing, aged father and his protege, Henry, also her beau. During her visit she discovers that the man she’s admired and trusted all her life as the most fair and just man has somehow shifted into someone with whom she deeply disagrees. Her once peaceful town has become a place where races are deeply divided, and where respect for one another has evaporated. The change throws her into despair and agony, and she fights to be understood and to understand what has happened.
So the story goes something like this: Once upon a time, Harper Lee wrote a manuscript and handed it to a publisher. The editor encouraged her to rework the manuscript. The manuscript became the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. It started as Go Set a Watchman.
Why I Read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
There’s been controversy over the publication of the book since it was announced. I’m not going to get into that here, but this guy makes some great points. Whether or not I chose to read Go Set a Watchman, it was going to be published and going to be on the bestseller lists. I mean, it’s HARPER LEE. It’s more of her story world. How can we resist this?
I had to read it. Partly out of curiosity. Partly because I wanted more Maycomb and Atticus and all that. Partly because I wanted to see where the story began. I wanted to know if I agreed with the editor – that the real story, the story that deserved to be told – was the one that ultimately became To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all-time favorite books. I knew looking at the history of this manuscript that it was not going to compare to the book that was ultimately published. These aren’t two separate stories. These are two versions of one story idea. Granted, each version plays out the story in very different ways, but to compare them in any other way than first draft to final draft really isn’t fair, and it really ignores the role that a good editor plays in the writing process.
Go Set a Watchman might, at first glance, seem like a sequel. It’s marketed as a separate story, a tale about Scout as an adult. Don’t buy that. I mean, yes, you get to see her a bit as a grown-up, but the heart and soul of the story are in Jean Louise’s childhood flashbacks. These are framed by her adult present life, but those scenes have so much less value without the past hinging them together and making us care.
Spoilers and Agonies
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is the hero. He’s admirable and good. In Go Set a Watchman, Lee explores a coming-of-age moment in which Jean Louise realizes her father is flawed, in which she profoundly disagrees with him. In which he has embraced the company of some very racist men. It feels like the polar opposite of the character we see in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Side note: Yes, those two versions of Atticus don’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to make sense. There isn’t supposed to be continuity because these aren’t two separate stories. They are a first draft and a final draft.
I pretty much want to reject that idea of Atticus. I want to hug the editor who said, nope, let’s talk about when this guy saved the day! Thank you. Oh, thank you, thank you!
Again, I think it’s important to think of these stories as one-or-the-other. We were never intended to have both.
Imagine the story world where Atticus and Scout and Jem live without To Kill a Mockingbird. Imagine that the flawed, sad, old Atticus is the only one we get.
Okay, stop before that gets too depressing. Because it would be totally depressing!
Side note: Can I just say that I totally flipped out when I read the passage where she’s talking about how Henry came to be kind of a second son to Atticus, and there’s like one line, squeezed into the middle of a sentence where it says, “…Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day…” and I was like wait, WHAT?!
I had to put the book down. I had to force myself to remember that when this was written, there was no Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird, that all those moments that I treasured and loved (after reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, I took to referring to my brother Jeremy as Jem) didn’t exist when Harper Lee wrote this line.
It was the only way I could forgive her. (I realize that sounds ridiculous. Forgive her as a writer, not as a person.) And remember that ultimately, she could have rejected her editor’s comments and taken her manuscript elsewhere. Fortunately, she took on rewriting her manuscript and creating the beloved story we know her for today.
Why I Won’t Review Go Set a Watchman
The feedback from her editor, the decision to rewrite, those have all risen in value to me now. I think those were the right choices. Those gave us the right story. I think it’s okay to read Go Set a Watchman (or not, if you don’t want to) as long as you read it for what it is: a glimpse into the early part of a complex creative process. It’s not a finished work and it isn’t meant to be taken as such.
I mean, the manuscript has a beginning, middle and ending. It doesn’t leave off mid-scene or anything. But I can’t ignore the fact that only one part of the process had been complete: Lee had written a manuscript. To leave out the role the editor played in the shaping of her story, to act like that doesn’t matter and that the manuscript should be judged as is the same way an edited, published novel is seems like a grossly ignorant choice to me.
Your thoughts are most welcome.
Did you read To Kill a Mockingbird? Are you planning to or have you read Go Set a Watchman? Share your thoughts on why or why not. I’m really curious to know what you think.