Ever since the moment of announcement, the late Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been a source of great controversy. Undoubtedly, To Kill a Mockingbird, her first novel, was a great success and although she withdrew from the public eye, her popularity as an author never waned. When the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, the original draft that developed into the much-loved novel that was To Kill a Mockingbird, was found, many questioned whether Harper Lee was in a fit mental state to consent to its publication. As such, a large debate emerged, with some readers refusing to read the novel. For those who did read it, the prevailing opinion was one of disappointment, especially with the revelation that the original conception of Atticus, a figure of moral integrity within To Kill a Mockingbird, was, in fact as a segregationist. But whatever the reason, it is clear that the reception of Go Set a Watchman was nowhere near as positive as that of To Kill a Mockingbird. Thus I thought it was time to answer the overarching question: did the Watchman kill the Mockingbird?
One thing that is absolutely certain is that the characters of Watchman are not the same beloved characters we met in Mockingbird. Gone is the playful, naïve tomboy in Scout Finch and in her place exists the older, though similarly morally integral and inquisitive Jean-Louise. This novel is largely in retrospect, based upon how her experiences shaped her character, with childhood recollections punctuating the novel. It was these that Lee’s original publisher took notice of, asking her to consider a novel from the perspective of a young Jean-Louise, in the form of Scout, a decision so many are exceptionally grateful for.
The greatest difference is undeniably between the two versions of Atticus. The Atticus of Mockingbird has become a symbol of equality, directly opposing the Atticus of Watchman, who liaises with the Ku Klux Klan, the epitome of racism and white supremacy. This shift in Atticus’ character unsettled many readers, due to the overwhelming significance of his righteousness within the novel we first knew. And yes, I too struggled to accept the new segregationist form of Atticus, but the trick is to separate the two, for these are not really the same character. While they share the same moniker, one has to remember that the original conception of Atticus is not the character he became, an approach that applies to all the characters.
For me, the most upsetting change was the absence of Jem, who, despite being a pivotal character in Mockingbird, is presented as more of an afterthought in Watchman, as the deceased brother of Jean-Louise. Clearly, though, Lee saw the promise of this largely absent character, developing him to be the important figure of growth that he is within Mockingbird.
Interestingly, the novel reads distinctively like a first draft; however, this is as it should be. Mockingbird went through many a redraft, and this is the original, unedited version of it. One would not expect a first draft to be exceptional and Watchman is far from it. The novel moves slowly, salvaged by the memories and recollections of Jean-Louise’s youth; the difference between past and present jars; and the plot is lacking, with an ending that is ultimately unsatisfactory. Arguably, rather than reading it as a prequel or a fully-fledged novel in its own right, one should read it for what it is. So no, the Watchman did not kill the Mockingbird for me, but instead changed my opinion of it for the better.
Original Image by Becca Ashworth