By Kyle Hansen
Harper Lee’s debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has often been called an American classic. Like it or not, Mockingbird undoubtedly had an a huge impact on American literature.
Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, takes us back to Maycomb, Ala., and the life of now adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her father, Atticus. Watchman is a novel as charming as the first, yet is much more relatable than Mockingbird.
However, Watchman has been loaded with controversy since its well before release in July. Harper Lee famously said that Mockingbird — published in 1960 — would be her only novel, and she is now, at age 89, sight and hearing impaired and living in a nursing home. She has not been available for interviews since the controversy over Watchman — a controversy over who really brought the novel forward to be published, whether it is a work distinct from or, rather, a long-discarded initial draft that Lee later reworked into Mockingbird, and what Lee’s wishes were (or are) about the publication of Watchman.
Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, brought the novel forward shortly after Lee’s sister and longtime literary protector Alice died. There is skepticism on whether or not this manuscript should have been published at all, since it was a draft that stayed hidden for 40 years. Did Harper Lee really have a say in this publishing, or was she exploited at a time when she could no longer object? Why were characters like Atticus Finch so differently drawn in each novel?
However, that being said, I enjoyed the novel because it’s relatable, and exemplifies how people change over time.
The novel is a great example of one who wrestles with the theme of morality. Scout grew up in a time period of extreme racism in America. Alabama was a hotbed of this, most famously exemplified by the march from Selma and the famous Rosa Parks refusal to leave her bus seat in Montgomery.
Atticus Finch in Mockingbird was the model of unshakable ethical principle — a hard-working lawyer who faced oppression as an honorable man when he defended an African-American man despite the racism and threats that surrounded him and his family.
Go Set a Watchman questions this morality that Atticus presents. Early on in the new novel, Scout begins to learn and see things about her father that test her faith in Atticus. Is Atticus really the upstanding man Scout grew up knowing and loving? Iis there another aspect to him that we never saw coming? This underscores the controversy of how Atticus is so different in each novel. The Atticus in Watchman, who more closely fits a quiet bigotry stereotype, forces the reader to question some of his ideals and morals.
This new outlook on the characters allows younger adults to really relate with Scout much more than the past. As young adults are going through a lot of changes, as college transitions are made. Scout is 26 years old now, and her world is changing around her. She has moved out and created a life of her own. Yet she still visits home and the changes that await her there are unsettling.
Along with Scout and Atticus, Watchman also brings back old Mockingbird characters Calpurnia, the maid, and Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister. We learn what has happened to Jem, Scout’s brother, early on in the novel. With the passing of time, everything around this small Alabama town has been changing.