Go, Set a Watchman – a morning-after review

Having finished reading Harper Lee’s novel last night, I’ve been absorbing and trying to organize my responses to its content. I will take some time just to identify, let alone articulate, the entire range of my reactions. Any review at this point must be fairly brief and quite probably not insightful enough to do the book full justice.

This is most definitely a story to be confronted head-on. There’s a deceptive innocence to its earlier chapters. The sweetness and humor of its flashbacks – so endearing to readers of “Mockingbird” – are ultimately countered by the unsettling developments within a character whom most of us think we know. In the process of being disabused of our illusions, we’re led to conclude that it might be impossible ever to understand anyone. The obvious becomes a facade concealing much less attractive underpinnings. Here is an iconic individual whose internal and external qualities prove to be greatly at odds. Yet this man’s remarkable equanimity, coupled with his acceptance of his own contradictions, enables him to live with himself, shadowed by neither guilt nor regret. We ask ourselves whether we could do the same, in any situation that might apply to us.

It is this very self-tolerance that most disturbs me, as a card-carrying member of humanity. Atticus, the defender of justice for all, seems utterly opposed to Atticus, the defender of racial segregation and social stratification. Can each aspect exist independently of the other? Can this man remain as an admirable figure in one context, while concurrently, the soft clay of his feet no longer supports him? These, I think, are questions fraught with thorns. We emerge bloodied from our encounter with them – just as Jean Louise must do, with her uncle’s assistance.

The expanded character of Jack Finch enhances my own understanding of the story. Some readers have taken exception to Uncle Jack’s meandering observations, many of which seem almost-irrelevant and extraneous to the situation at hand. However, they are not. I enjoyed his commentaries, because a number of the phrases were drawn from literary works that I knew and recognized. They showed the scope of the man’s knowledge; voracious readers draw upon so many sources. He must have carried a vast store of imaginary worlds in his head, since he could “paraphrase three authors into one sentence and have them all make sense” (p. 275). His allusions to specific authors provided clarification of what was important to him. If the reader is familiar with the sources of Jack’s references, then an “aha moment” can suddenly arise. From Shakespeare, Jean Louise recalls Viola’s misery when forced to either lie or confess her true feelings. “A blank, my lord” she replies to her uncle. (p. 262) She cannot – as Viola could not – admit to love, even though it’s there. And with her terse comment, we might also – tangentially, perhaps subliminally – be reminded of Lear, that noble and righteous king who falls from grace. The father who betrays his own best-beloved child when she is unable to voice her affection for him. Is this coincidental? I don’t think so. Nothing about this book is coincidence. Harper Lee is too astute a writer; her characters are seldom directed toward accidental inferences. They learn because they have no other choices.

While Atticus is pivotal to the story, and the revelation of his personal prejudices elicits dismay in the reader, it is John Hale Finch whose own revelation – coupled with his unexpected powers of observation – proves most surprising to me. He’s enigmatic without being obscure, and interestingly odd without being bat-guano crazy. Whereas Atticus’s legendary determination and keen sense of impartiality have made him a powerful force in Maycomb County, Jack Finch’s loopy brilliance provides a refreshing counterpoint to all that earnest duty and loyalty. In the final analysis, because he is so crucial to the narrative, all of Dr. Finch’s eccentricities click into place. As a result of his immense and rather free-wheeling intellectual life, he’s the perfect foil to his brother’s more pragmatic mindset. He becomes an unlikely figure of salvation, offering his own brand of redemption to both Atticus and Jean Louise. Is he afflicted with “divine madness” or something more? Is he, in fact, better attuned to his environment than anyone else in Maycomb?

Atticus Finch reveals a serious character flaw that incorporates attitudes prevalent in his era. As a result, his daughter is wounded almost past healing. Jack Finch unleashes – albeit briefly – a capacity for physical violence that catches us by surprise. He seems shocked by it as well. But out of that single action comes a resolution of sorts. The storm surge of his niece’s fury is broken and its momentum dissipated. The dotty uncle can deliver a powerful punch when the need arises. We ask ourselves which is most painful and least acceptable – Atticus’s unrepentant betrayal, or the good doctor’s backhanded blow. Neither seems to represent the man who has committed each act. So which one leaves the deepest mark? And is it possible for something good to emerge from hurt, even this entails the killing of hope and the death of belief?

The timeless battle between good and evil is hardly a theme here. If there’s a “moral of the story”, it’s not easily defined. Stylistically, I suspect this book will be challenged in some school districts because of its unflinching language. But Jean Louise utters the implicit (and sometimes unacknowledged) dialogues of that day. She voices the unspoken and holds up the flawed mirror to all of the “genteel bigots” who speak well and think ugly. That disconnect shocks us. We’re left reeling by it, just as Jean Louise is reeling. She pulls us into her own horrifying enlightenment. We emerge with changed perspectives, not only on her father but on the entire spectrum of society which he represents.

To those who condemn the language and would prefer to see it censored: no ethical publisher has the authority to alter an author’s work except in an editorial context – syntax, for instance, or typos. No principled author would permit this alteration. The power of a novel that tackles unexpected prejudices is partly based on the way these prejudices are expressed, in the diction of their day (not ours). We would not speak in this way, but THEY would – and did. If part of a story’s purpose is to evoke strong emotion in the reader, then that purpose is more than fulfilled here.

As the novel progresses to its conclusion, a critical juxtaposition emerges on page 265, lines 1-2: ” … every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.” Quality of character is set at odds with awareness. Can we possess an innate sense of fairness without at the same time being aware of existing unfairness all around us? Does individual conscience supersede the group’s perceptions? This, I think, is a subtle but significant observation on Dr. Finch’s part. The novel’s title specifically points to this significance. We’re meant to grasp it.

For all his wanderings through a maze of apparent non sequiturs, the good doctor scores a touchdown that would have made the ghost of Jem Finch proud. It just takes time for the points to register.

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One thought on “Go, Set a Watchman – a morning-after review

  1. Just getting around to reading this post Brenda. You should be writing for The New Yorker. I so enjoyed this commentary/review. Full of insight and it has inspired me to read the book … when I have a few more active brains cells. Perhaps this winter when things are not so frantic for me as I’m working with a full deck at present. Thanks again for this articulate, thought provoking, post.

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