“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”
Go Set a Watchman was released this week and despite the warnings that reading this long awaited companion (it is NOT a sequel) to To Kill A Mockingbird may spoil everything I have ever believed about the story and its main characters, I read the book. Mostly, I wanted to see for myself how this supposed manuscript provided the material for one of my favourite books, how it was different, and whether the differences would allow some insight into the mind of one of the most reclusive authors.
Having read the book, I have more questions than answers. What I do know for certain is that it has not spoiled my appreciation for To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which is greater than the sum of its parts and the message of which is what will endure.
Having read Go Set a Watchman, it does not cast a shadow on the Atticus and Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird, because they are evidently completely different characters struggling against circumstances in what seems like a parallel universe. In a way, Go Set A Watchman is neither a sequel nor an undeveloped manuscript. In a way, Go Set a Watchman is an alternative version altogether – like a standalone book so far removed in character, voice, plot, style even, from To Kill a Mockingbird that comparison by their differences becomes more exhausting than a comparison by their similarities.
Call me cynical, but for the first rather uneventful 20% of the book, Go Set a Watchman read like the insipid brainchild of someone who wanted to pay tribute to both To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind in their own creation of a work of fan fiction.
It was quite funny how scenes taking place in Jean Louise’s childhood read like scenes well-loved in To Kill a Mockingbird, but scenes set in Jean Louise’s present (a 26-year-old woman returning home from New York City) read like the recreation of an emotionally stilted Scarlett O’Hara. In short, the scenes mismatched and – dare I say it – read doctored, or at best badly self-edited (even for an unedited manuscript).
However, it was not only the writing style that was all over the place. For two thirds of the book, I had no idea what the book was driving at, what the book was trying to be even: it started of as something that tried to be a romance novel as much of the early plot focused on Jean Louise’s relationship with Henry. Then there were glimpses of Jean Louise’s insistence on being an independent woman, hinting at a sort of feminist side to the story. Then these were lost again in favour of her discovery that her home town and even her family turned out to be a bunch of racists.
“What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked? No, not the last. What turned ordinary men into screaming dirt at the top of their voices, what made her kind of people harden and say “nigger” when the word had never crossed their lips before?”
This discovery caused Jean Louise much turmoil and seemed to suggest that the point of the book was to follow her standing up to the society around her, which of course would have been in line with To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Cynical, hell. I’m a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses. Your father’s the same—”
“If you tell me that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely I will throw this coffee at you.”
However, instead of any of these approaches, the Go Set a Watchman finally settled on the persuasion of Jean Louise to let go of her convictions and accept the racists around her as humans just trying their best to preserve her world, acquiesce, and try and change society little by little without making much fuss.
“That’s the one thing about here, the South, you’ve missed. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”
She started the car and backed it down the driveway. She said, “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more….”
“I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”
Why? Because apparently speaking out and standing up for her convictions is childish:
“I mean it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days. You don’t have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven’t the humbleness of mind—”
Now, if this had been the straight message delivered by this book, I could have possibly accepted it as a book of its time and place, despite even the presentation of, and what at times seemed a justification of, the vilest of prejudices. (If ever one needed a list of white supremacist reasoning, this book lists them all.) I probably would have rated it a little, tho not much, higher, too.
What really got to me, however, was the way that the conclusion was delivered – that Jean Louise’s bigotry was caused by her textbook pseudo-Freudian father-fixation, and that she needed a good slap to snap out of it – and she did.
“… now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings— I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”
Because, really, what the world needs more of are patronising amateur psychologists telling women to shut up and accept that racism is just natural.
“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”
0* (out of 5*)