Go Set a Watchman has been mired in controversy since before its release, with big media outlets releasing quotes from the text designed to show readers what a mess they would be getting into if they chose to pick up the book. While I acknowledge Go Set a Watchman is very much still in the draft stage of a novel and would have benefited from revisions before publication if Lee were able to make them, I do think the media reporting and early reviews by some readers were misleading about the book and what it’s trying to accomplish. Read on to discover four things you ought to know if you’ve already made up your mind never to read Go Set a Watchman.
Spoiler Warning for Those Who Prefer to Know Nothing about the Book!
1. Early Readers Misrepresented the Discussion of Race
One of the biggest controversies surrounding Go Set a Watchman at the time of release was about the supposed racist nature of the book. You can still go on Goodreads and find readers who have copied offensive passages into the review field and left a big, fat 1 star for the novel. The problem? There are certainly racist characters in the book…but the book itself is not racist. The book itself is about how the racists are wrong.
Our protagonist, Jean Louise (Scout), struggles with returning home to Maycomb and realizing that people she once respected have become openly racist. She’s horrified, appalled. She goes on long monologues and internal reflections about how all their viewpoints are a perversion of the truth and she can no longer associate with them. She cannot believe how far Maycomb has fallen and just wants to flee back to more open-minded New York.
Jean Louise is clearly the character readers are meant to sympathize with, not the racists she is butting heads with. Readers might argue they dislike the way the confrontation plays out (especially considering the book was written decades ago and never revised to fit 2016 perspectives on these issues), but to say the book is racist because it features secondary characters who are racist (AND are distinctly condemned for being so) is truly missing the point.
2. Hating Atticus Might Be a Feature, Not a Flaw
The second biggest controversy is the fact that Atticus Finch, undisputed hero of To Kill a Mockingbird and an inspiration to all, is one of the racists. It’s true that this is disappointing and arguably doesn’t even align with what we know about Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird (see point 4). It’s clear why people are upset. However, if readers simply go along for the ride and accept this revelation, it will fully immerse them into the book. After all, this is exactly what Go Set a Watchman is about: Scout learning that her hero, her father, is not perfect. It’s a hard blow for all of us.
Jean Louise talks to her uncle about the fight she had with Atticus over race:
“Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level.”
“Is that why he didn’t–didn’t lam into me? I s that why he didn’t even try to defend himself?”
“He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being.”
‘I love you.’ ‘As you please.’ Where she would have had a spirited argument only, an exchange of ideas, a clash of hard and different points of view with a friend, with him she had tried to destroy. She had tried to tear him to pieces, to wreck him, to obliterate him.
3. Lee Has Wise Words about Tolerance and Dialogue
Lee, however, does not allow Jean Louise to rest on her laurels of being right, and this might be the boldest and most insightful move she makes in the book. Anyone can be convinced they are right (even the racists in this book believe in their own moral correctness), and Lee makes it clear that it’s what one does with one’s morals that matters. Shunning those who disagree with you because you think they’re “toxic” and not worth listening to, living in a echo chamber or a bubble where you only talk to those who are like-minded, these are acts of cowardice to Lee. Courage is actually engaging in dialogue with people who who have opinions opposite to yours, actually listening to them and trying to understand what it is they believe and why they believe it. Yelling at them and leaving means nothing. Letting them talk without truly listening to their words is pointless.
Jean Louise’s uncle argues you can fit the definition of a bigot even when you’re right:
“You’re very much like [Atticus], except you’re a bigot and he’s not.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out. Now you, you were turned inside out by the granddaddy of all father things, so you ran, and how you ran.
“You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ’em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow. You’ll be the same at sixty as you are now–then you’ll be a case and not my niece. You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas, no matter how silly you think they are.”
4. If You Dislike the Book, You Can Ignore It
Go Set a Watchman has an complicated publication history. The publisher and Lee’s lawyer insist they had Lee’s permission to take the work to the public, but many people were and remain skeptical of this claim. Even if Lee had authorized publication, the book was somewhat disingenuously packaged and marketed as “the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.” In reality, Go Set a Watchman is an early draft of what later became To Kill a Mockingbird. This manuscript was not in any way edited or revised to be printed as an official sequel, meaning its value may be primarily academic, and perhaps should have been marketed as many of J.R.R. Tolkien’s drafts have been (i.e. clearly marked as drafts, and with acknowledgement they might be of most interest to scholars and super fans, rather than the casual reader).
One simple fact remains in all this confusion: We have no idea what Lee thinks of Go Set a Watchman. We don’t know if she considers the text only a draft, something full of ideas she once had for her characters but has since discarded, or if she considers the text “canon,” an official (albeit rough and unedited) sequel. So if you don’t like how Maycomb or your favorite characters evolved, that’s fine. With no indication that Lee approves of Go Set a Watchman as canon, you can simply pretend that the events in the book never happened.
Go Set a Watchman is far from perfect. It takes awhile to get into, and there are info dumps that seem weird if you consider it as a sequel rather than an intended standalone. Parts of it are confusing, and sometimes it seems as though someone’s trying to say something wise but you can’t quite figure out what it is. These are doubtless some of the problems that prompted Lee to revise the book–into something almost entirely different. However, the criticism that has surrounded the book, either due to the lack of editing or due to the supposed racism, has led critics to overlook what the book is actually trying to achieve and to ignore the parts that are true gems. More than anything, Go Set a Watchman says “potential” to me. Lee has important things to say and a strong narrative touch with which to say them. It’s clear why this book wasn’t published as-is, but it’s also clear why an editor took a chance on Lee’s talent.