Go Set a Watchman: Book summary and reviews of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee X
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
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  • Published in USA  Jul 2015
    288 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch - Scout - struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee's enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

BookBrowse Review by Donna Chavez
I pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee some time ago. It arrived Tuesday evening. I read it yesterday, in one sitting. I've also read many, many reviews and commentaries. Here are my Thursday morning thoughts:

Although GSaW was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird most reviewers have spoken about it as a sequel since it deals with events that occur decades later. They seem to feel betrayed by the fact that the Atticus Finch they had so revered is shown to be a racist. I'm really puzzled by this reaction. Style and point of view aside I would expect that readers -- people I hold in the highest esteem and who, because they are readers after all -- would be among the first to understand the concepts of cognitive dissonance and character complexity.

Frankly, I fell in love with the old Atticus Finch right along with everyone else. But I also recognized the fact that as a character, as a human being, he was a fiction. He had depth but no breadth. Maybe I knew that because when I was the same age as Scout was during that trial, in my eyes my father was just like Atticus. He was no lawyer and no champion of civil rights. But he appeared to me as the kindest, most tolerant and benevolent man I knew. He didn't degrade people. He was as friendly with janitors and parking lot valets and waitresses as he was with the millionaire that owned the company he worked for. He treated all people, regardless of race or social situation, equally well. By his actions he taught me tolerance and respect and open-mindedness.

It wasn't until years later that I learned he had much more complex views of the world. He was also a racist. I learned that the hard way, by dating a Black man. My father raged and ranted. We went round and round, me in tears, he in stroke-level fury. I confronted him with his own lessons, his own example that he had so clearly set for me as a child. I told him, "This is what you taught me; to take each human being as a respected individual." I was confused, angry, hurt beyond words.

It wasn't until years later, after I had my own children, that I finally got what happened. You see, I wanted to be a better person for my children. So I worked very hard to improve myself in ways that would influence them, help them strive to become better people than their imperfect mother. I wasn't being fake. I truly worked at being and doing my best, at modeling the kind of behavior that I had so admired in my father. Then it dawned on me that it was highly likely that's how my dad felt. He wasn't being insincere. He was just modeling his best behavior so that I would grow up to be a better person than he.

Also, my childhood memory likely filtered out the instances when my dad was not perfect. Just as Scout most likely did. Her first person point of view in To Kill a Mockingbird was filtered through a lens that was rooting for Atticus to be a pillar of tolerance. I got that. Maybe not the first time I read the novel but I sure got it when I re-read it later in life. Because point of view – perspective/voice – is everything.

Even though Go Set a Watchman is also from Jean Louise's (Scout's) point of view it is from a different perspective, in a different voice. Not first person but third. Not as personal. Not as obfuscated by filters. Maybe not more objective but more removed, universal. Maybe even more reliable. Certainly more realistic. So Atticus is a much more complex person, a richer (if less likeable) character from a literary standpoint. He is a moral pillar with feet of clay. Hmm.

So did I like Go Set a Watchman? I repeat, hmm. Because I tried – with moderate success – to forget I had read the other book I actually thought it was a fairly good debut. Not as powerful as TKaM but as a bildungsroman it has merit. Take away the highly charged racial aspect and I would think that a lot of young adults might recognize Scout's feelings in seeing her parent as a multi-dimensional, if flawed, adult.
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Other Reviews
"Herein lies the paradox at the heart of Watchman that many white Americans still cannot or will not comprehend: that one can at once believe in the ideal of "justice for all" — as Atticus once purported to — and yet maintain a deeply ingrained and unexamined notion of racial difference now based in culture as opposed to biology..." - Washington Post

"Promise, however, remains the operative word, for Go Set a Watchman is an apprentice effort, and falls apart in the second half . . . It is a starker book than To Kill a Mockingbird, more reactive to its moment." - LA Times

"Go Set a Watchman is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion. " - Wall Street Journal

"Students of writing will find "Watchman" fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman's grief over her discovery of her father's bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech .... mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement?" - New York Times

"Go Set a Watchman is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story ... all I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece." - NPR

Even with its weaknesses, Go Set a Watchman's voice is, at its best, beguiling and distinctive, and reminiscent of Mockingbird, and its similarity in style might finally end the speculation that Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote, "helped" to write Mockingbird." - The Independent (UK)

"Regardless of whether the new book is regarded as Mockingbird 2 or Mockingbird 1.0, it is, in most respects, a new work, and a pleasure, revelation and genuine literary event, akin to the discovery of extra sections from T S Eliot's The Waste Land or a missing act from Hamlet hinting that the prince may have killed his father." - The Guardian (UK)

This information about Go Set a Watchman shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

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Reader Reviews

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Diane S.

Go Set a Watchman
I decided not to re-read TKAM, which I last read many, many years ago. Thought it would be better not to compare these two books, a first draft is not a prequel or a sequel. As for how this book came to light, as a reader that is not my job either. The book is out there now to be read or not.

I liked it a lot. Seeing Scout older, Addicus in his seventies was a bit strange but with it I went. Even in this unedited draft of her first manuscript, her love of Monroe County shines through, as do all her characters. Lee's sense of time and place is so very apparent and show in her writing. I loved her Uncle John in this one, such a very wise but eccentric man. Seeing Scouts growing pains, changes in her opinions and ability to articulate what it is she believes, was wonderful. At the end it got a bit preachy, but it clearly defined both her and Atticus's attitudes towards the South and its Black residents.

This book in no way changed the way I felt about Atticus, he is still a very wise man, in my opinion. Whether you agree with his opinions or not, they are easily understandable from his position and in keeping with his character. Since I did not live through this time, I feel I am unable to say if he was right or wrong.

A good novel that stands alone in its own right. I am left just wishing she had written more, it was and is a huge loss.

Cloggie Downunder

It’s not To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s still a good read!
Go Set a Watchman is the second published novel by American author, Harper Lee. It was written before To Kill A Mockingbird, but not published until 55 years after that book. Now twenty-six years old and living in New York, Jean Louise Finch travels to Maycomb for her regular two-week visit with her ageing father. Atticus is seventy-two and often debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis, but he does have young Henry Clifton to work his law practice, and his sister Alexandra lives in the Finch house to help with daily activities. Henry is pressing Jean Louise to marry him, and although Aunt Alexandra considers him unsuitable, Jean Louise finds herself actually thinking seriously about it:
“She was almost in love with him. No, that’s impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren’t. Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all”

But just a few days into her stay, she discovers, quite by chance, something that rocks her to the core, something that has her actually doubting the foundation of her values. Until then, “She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, ‘What would Atticus do?’ passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshipped him”

There has been quite some criticism of this book, and some of that is valid. Jean Louise’s rant in Part VI could certainly do with editing, and while it does not sparkle quite like To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps the characters are not quite as well-formed or appealing as that book, nonetheless, Go Set A Watchman has humour and wisdom. It forms a welcome complement to To Kill A Mockingbird, and Jean Louise’s reminiscences of her childhood are quite delightful. At least one passage is lifted wholly from this book and inserted into TKAM, perhaps hardly surprising.

Lee’s character descriptions are every bit as good as in TKAM: “She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way” and “She was completely unaware that with one twist of the tongue she could plunge Jean Louise into a moral turmoil by making her niece doubt her own motives and best intentions, by tweaking the protestant, philistine strings of Jean Louise’s conscience until they vibrated like a spectral zither” are examples.

A knowledge of Civil Rights legislation in the mid-fifties comes in handy, but Uncle Jack’s words of wisdom are as succinct and universally applicable as they ever were, as demonstrated by: “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends” and “…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right”.

It’s not To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s still a good read!

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Author Information

Harper Lee

Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. She attended Huntingdon College and studied law at the University of Alabama. She is the author of two novels, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. She was awarded numerous literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died in February 2016.

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