Generally, I enjoy a novel, respect a novel, or neither enjoy nor respect it. However, Go Set a Watchman really complicates things. Never before has a novel filled me with so much ambivalence. If read properly--as a first draft, not a sequel--the book is a compelling look into the early works of Harper Lee and provides its readers with insight into the writing, editing, and evolution of a novel. If read as a sequel, the story seems overambitious, underdeveloped, and, at times, sloppy.
Despite being marketed as an “essential companion” and a sequel to the seminal To Kill a Mockingbird, I submit that Go Set a Watchman is more an unedited manuscript than it is a completed novel. The fact that Watchman has not been developed past its infancy is evident in the novel’s inconsistencies. Take the narration, for instance. The novel is written with a third person narrator who has limited omniscience. The narrator knows the inner-thoughts and beliefs of Jean Louise--one character: that’s how limited omniscience works in a novel. In chapter three, however, the consistency of the narration falters. All of a sudden, we’re in the head of Jean Louise’s aunt, Alexandra, which is jarring at first, but then, naturally, you trust the author and begin to justify the choice: Many novels switch narrators chapter to chapter--usually in first person, but, whatever. Maybe the narrator isn’t limited at all, but fully omniscient . . . but then why don’t we know more about other characters? Ah, I got it! It’s Free Indirect Discourse! Okay, fine.
Then we get to chapter ten and this happens: “She rose, smiled goodbye, and said she would be coming back soon. She made her way to the sidewalk. Two solid hours and I didn’t know where I was. I am so tired” (120). A complete change in point-of-view, a shift from third person to first person, and then right back into third person for the rest of the novel. As a high school English teacher, this kind of sloppy writing makes me twitch. That being said, there are some standout moments in this novel, and, as can be expected from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the high points are very high.
Lee transports us back to Maycomb, Alabama. At first, Maycomb’s simplicity and insularity is strangely alluring. Lee’s familiar and eloquent prose sets the scene:
"Home was Maycomb County, a gerrymander some seventy miles long and spreading thirty miles at its widest point, a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements the largest of which was Maycomb, the county seat. Until comparatively recently in its history, Maycomb County was so cut off from the rest of the nation that some citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilections over the past ninety years, still voted Republican. No trains went there--Maycomb Junction, a courtesy title, was located in Abbott County, twenty miles away. Bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress. But few people took advantage of the roads, and why should they? If you did not want much, there was plenty" (7-8).
The writing is good! Of course it’s good. Harper Lee is an incredible author. The major problem with Watchman isn’t the writing--any editor could have addressed the issues with point-of-view. The major problem with Watchmen is that Lee takes on too much.
Whereas Mockingbird addresses complex themes through concrete conflicts and characterization--injustice and inequality via Tom’s trial, gender roles via Scout’s character, unwarranted prejudice via Boo Radley’s character--in Watchman Harper Lee addresses themes of morality and race through long-winded dialogue between Jean Louise and her uncle, Dr. Jack Finch. Dr. Finch argues that Atticus’s racism and knee-jerk conservatism is only natural considering his station in life. Jean Louise--along with most readers--feels betrayed, like everything she ever thought she knew about Atticus has been a lie. The dialogue feels contrived, like a transcribed debate at a conference for psychologists, not like an emotionally wrought argument between family. Themes of morality, race, conservatism, and progressivism are complicated and confusing enough without having characters pontificate endlessly. Nothing feels resolved in the story because the conflict isn’t concrete. It’s philosophical.
Without giving too much away--after all, this argument is the novel’s pivotal moment--suffice it to say, Watchman concludes with Jean Louise doing all the compromising, which shouldn’t sit well with the reader. The Jean Louise from Mockingbird; or Scout, as we knew her then; wouldn’t have yielded so easily. Additionally Atticus’s devolution of character makes Watchman an even less-convincing sequel. Reading the book, you can hear the voice of an editor saying, "You know that part that you breeze over about Atticus defending a wrongly accused man? What if you do that instead?" As for this novel? “If you did not want much, there was plenty.”