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Go set a (new) Watchman

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Set almost two decades after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman sees Jean Louise Finch return to the small Alabama town of Maycomb, and to her father Atticus. He is now 72, severely arthritic, yet still dedicated to the law and apparently intransigent from his morals of almost two decades past. The narrative pivots around the revelation that Jean Louise’s father, her ‘watchman’, is not quite what she thought him to be, much to the horror of generations of eager readers who’d taken her childhood idol for their own. However, it is not without hope.

Considering the aesthetics of Watchman in comparison to its illustrious relative, the verdict is unanimous. Apparently relatively unaltered from when Lee discarded the draft at the behest of her editors, it is stylistically inferior to Mockingbird; which was written afterwards. The first hundred pages are quite dull. The story lacks any dramatic set-pieces to match the courtroom drama of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, with much of the action residing in childhood flashbacks, at times causing the reader to pine for that book instead.

Nonetheless, Watchman ultimately makes for an interesting read, which offers up a deep reflection on prejudice in the American South. Atticus is of the paternalistic belief that the black population are not ready for desegregation. However, Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack seems to suggest that it is the white South that isn’t ready. With his nineteenth century outlook, he reflects on the 1950s South, whose attitudes seem centuries behind the rest of America. An intellectual accomodationist to racist views, Jack suggests that the South’s being forced to keep pace with steadily liberalising attitudes elsewhere could have repercussions on a par with the civil war. With the Confederate flag still such a point of contention today; people like Uncle Jack might have felt such fears in the 1950s. Though the notion is not explicitly embraced, it exposes how prejudice and inequality can be backed by fear, even in more liberal, intellectual circles and highlights the huge challenge presented in fighting such prejudice.

Despite some critics lamenting what they see as an accomodationist conclusion to the novel in which Jean Louise decides to stay in Maycomb despite its segregationist politics, there is a more uplifting interpretation to be found here. Uncle Jack calls Jean Louise a ‘bigot’ for wanting to leave without standing up for what she believes in. Rather than being persuaded to settle down and surrender to the bigotry of Maycomb, she is staying to stand up against it. Coming from a respected family she has more power to do this than her boyfriend Hank, who claims he would be shunned from Maycomb society if he were to take any action himself.

Though Atticus Finch may no longer seem an appropriate watchman by which to set our moral compass, his daughter emerges as a potentially worthy successor to his tainted mantle. Go Set a Watchman is arguably a welcome companion to Lee’s original classic.

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