Go Set a Watchman book review: Mockingbird’s darker side

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Published: July 26, 2015 12:07:59 AM

Harper Lee’s rough draft of her famous novel is jumpy yet compelling in parts

Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee
Random House
Pp 278
Rs 799

Sudipta Datta

TO HELP a six-year-old tide over a difficult first day at school, a father teaches his daughter a valuable lesson: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” he tells her gently, “…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” That was Atticus Finch, father, lawyer and, yes, the voice of reason, in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning 1960 book To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a lesson Scout can never afford to forget. We find out just how important Finch’s words are when we meet Scout again in Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s second novel published 53 years after Mockingbird and set two decades later, but written earlier.

Jean Louise Finch, who no longer answers to her nickname ‘Scout’, is now 26 years’ old and returning home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York—where she works—to visit her 72-year-old father who is battling rheumatoid arthritis and other ills. Scout has grown up exactly as we thought she would—by the time Mockingbird ends, Scout is a tomboyish eight-year-old—bold and opinionated, happy in her slacks, already sniffing her aunt Alexandra’s disapproval.

But more than Finch’s fragile health, it’s his state of mind that comes as a rude shock to his daughter—and Mockingbird readers.

The shock comes early, as we turn on to page 101. Arranging her father’s papers into a pile one Sunday afternoon, Jean Louise spots a pamphlet titled The Black Plague. “When she had finished, she took the pamphlet by one of its corners, held it like she would hold a dead rat by the tail… stepped on the garbage can trigger and threw the pamphlet in”. Her aunt Alexandra, who now lives with her brother Finch to help him through his debilitating illness, chides her gently: “Jean Louise, I don’t think you fully realise what’s been going on down here.”

Far from being a paragon of virtue, as Finch is portrayed in the Mockingbird book and film—portrayed in an Oscar-winning role by Gregory Peck—in Go Set a Watchman, Finch is a racist and a segregationist, who tells his daughter, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?”
Though Go Set a Watchman has been published now, we have been told that this was a rough draft of Mockingbird, and in that Watchman is a fascinating read because it shows us the path to Mockingbird. Scout’s other half, her brother Jem, who had a vital role in Mockingbird, is sadly dead in Watchman. The trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, held centrestage in Mockingbird, ending in tragedy. In Watchman, the trial is mentioned in passing, with Finch not only taking up cudgels for a black man accused of rape by a white girl, but managing to get him acquitted as well. Calpurnia, Scout and Jem’s much loved nanny in Mockingbird, no longer works at the Finch household in Watchman. When Jean Louise goes to meet Calpurnia in Watchman, she can’t get through to her. “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are you doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out?” In a heartbreaking scene that follows, Calpurnia asks Jean Louise, “What are you doing to us?” Calpurnia of Mockingbird seemingly didn’t need to be so bleak.

Since we have been told that Watchman is not a sequel, but was actually written before Mockingbird, it begs a question: what made Lee soften the portrayal of Finch in Mockingbird? But with Lee being a recluse for years, we may never know the answer to that.

In Watchman, Jean Louise is back in the upper balcony of the court, now watching her father hold a meeting of the Citizens’ Council to thwart the Blacks, all the time remembering her childhood days and her father’s voice, “a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentlemen if there’s one slogan in this world, I believe it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

Mockingbird builds the story around this idea of Finch.

Unlike Mockingbird, which had crisp dialogues and a wonderful storyline, Watchman is disjointed and jumpy, with an unsatisfactory, pat ending. Finch’s brother, uncle Jack, explains to Jean Louise why Finch is behaving the way he is—a human being with failings—and why she must climb into his skin and walk around in it to understand him better before offering her a life lesson: “…it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”

Lee’s description of Maycomb and its ladies is hilarious—especially during ‘the Coffee’ aunt Alexandra holds in honour of Jean Louise, where she realises how hard a life of domesticity would be. Jean Louise’s prom night affair, too, is handled wonderfully.

There’s no Boo Radley (Jem and Scout’s reclusive friend in Mockingbird) in Watchman, and Dill (their best friend) is only mentioned in passing. Instead, there is this new character Henry Clinton whom Jean Louise wants to date, but not marry.

But the main difference is that while Mockingbird ended on a note of hope, there is a sense of anxiety and restlessness in Watchman, perhaps mirroring the Thirties in Alabama and the deeply segregated south in America.

Then again, it’s impossible not to read Watchman against the backdrop of present-day tensions in America, as it grapples with worsening race relations.

One may argue that the moral centre of Watchman, if there is one in this complex book, is Jean Louise, who stands up to her father and vehemently protests against his racist views. But Jean Louise’s prejudices creep in too. While on the one hand, she admits being ‘colour-blind’, on the other, she can’t help blurting out, “Mercy, what do they think they’re doing?” when a car full of Negroes drives by. There’s no easy way out of Watchman, but as uncle Jack tells Jean Louise: “Every man’s island, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.”

Sudipta Datta is a freelancer

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