“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” –Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
As the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, muddled in controversy over its publication, Go Set a Watchman tries very hard to make a point. It is an earnest novel, but also a very young one, and in an odd way does not seem to stand on its own. If I had not had an interest in the characters because of the revised version of the novel, I would not have enjoyed it at all. It was a quick read, yet one that does not seem to know itself as well as it should.
A few negatives stood out to me:
- It felt dated. It is very much a product of the time in which it was written, lacking the timeless quality of To Kill a Mockingbird. Filled with stereotypes of Southern young wives and husbands, race relations and infantilization and Otherness, it could have done with a few more rounded characters to interact with Jean Louise. What I wouldn’t have done for a Miss Maudie or a Boo Radley.
- The narrative structure seemed disjointed. There were two flashbacks which stood out, one involving a revival and the other falsies. They read like short stories written separately, both with an almost painfully forced attempt at a payoff moment in the end. They seemed to be stuffed into the rest of the novel in order to fill space. Also noticeable is the way that the third-person perspective created an unpleasant distance between the reader and Jean Louise.
- The pessimistic tone did not work. The book ends on a low-point, with characters coming to an uneasy truce. This is a very adversarial book which pits Jean Louise against just about everyone, constantly, seething with righteous indignation. What sets apart To Kill a Mockingbird is that it deals with difficult issues without losing its optimism. Atticus will always be there waiting when Jem wakes up in spite of Go Set a Watchman.
- The attempt at setting up a relationship between Jean Louise and Henry, a new character who moved to Maycomb after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, made me cringe. There is all manner of talk about what sort of people the Finches are and what sort of people Henry’s family are and whether the two are fit to mingle. Plus, there was no chemistry between the two. They swim in a lake fully dressed and engage in a cliché courtship. Henry is dull, a bland stand-in for Jem in Atticus’s life. No wonder Jean Louise can’t be persuaded to marry the man.
- A slight spoiler, and only slight because it’s mentioned in the first chapter, I missed Jem, my favorite character from To Kill a Mockingbird. The moments which held the most feeling, and therefore the most interest, for me were when characters were reflecting on the loss of Jem and how it affected them all. Rest well, Jem.
In short, the only thing that makes Go Set a Watchman significant is its relation to To Kill a Mockingbird. From a literary point-of-view, it is interesting to see how the story started and to take apart the threads of the draft that led to a classic novel.