Harper Lee – Go Set A Watchman

Go Set a Watchman cover

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee.
Penguin Random House NZ/William Heinemann Imprint (2015).
RRP: $37.
TPb, 392pp.
ISBN: 9781785150296.

Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.

Go Set a Watchman is a manuscript that was formulated and set in the 1950s and published to great acclaim last year, shortly before Harper Lee’s death. Copies of this novel were swept up and consumed generously, but despite such fanfare Watchman is widely considered to be more appropriately viewed as a rough draft of what was to become To Kill a Mockingbird.

It is an unusual and bemusing situation to read a work newly-discovered but now 60-odd years old, especially in light of the fact that Pulitzer-prizewinning Mockingbird is held as a classic, formative text. To recap briefly: Mockingbird is told from the point of view of learned six year old, Jean Louise (Scout), growing up in strongly segregated small town Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. She is the daughter of a prominent lawyer, Atticus, who defies common etiquette and risks personal safety and public standing by defending a young black man charged with raping a white woman. This novel focuses on the themes of human decency winning out over bigotry and ingrained racism.

Go Set a Watchman takes place twenty years later when Jean Louise, now living in New York, takes her fifth trip home to visit her aging father. While Mockingbird is strongly narrative-driven and fast-paced, Watchman is a confused and confusing text, leaping between needlessly lengthy segments of childhood reminiscences and Jean Louise’s urgent and passionate interactions with her home community on her return. A second reading hardly clears up miscomprehension, which seems to be the basis of this early work. Thus Watchman is fascinating to read and analyse for exactly that: for how it displays the author’s early workings of plot details, such as the outcome for the accused; character formation, especially concerning Atticus and Scout; and, of course, the laying out of the main themes and issues of prejudice, racism, and intolerance.

Two aspects of this text as an early work-in-progress most alarmingly loom. One is the central character of Atticus, who, far from being the “moral compass” he is in Mockingbird is sly, inconsistent and utterly ambiguous here. Whole sections of inflammatory, sometimes brutal, dialogue between himself and the outraged Jean Louise make his sense of self and ethical stance none the clearer. However, by the time of production of Mockingbird Lee had painted a three-dimensional Atticus firmly and utterly convincingly. Likewise Jean Louise in Watchman is still being conceptualised.

The other aspect that most points to Watchman as a draft is the indecisive form as a whole, and the quite distinct styles of writing that run through this form. With less narrative action the focus is on Jean Louise’s increasing awareness that the “southern outlook” is one that she abhors, and more urgently, that her father shares these bigoted views. The writing is alarmed, morally righteous and didactic as Jean Louise reacts to this knowledge. This jars with the long sections of third person objective accounts of her innocent-enough childhood times.

However, while Watchman is far from polished, it is well worth the read for how it complements the fine Mockingbird. One can gain illuminating insights into Harper Lee’s writing processes and the development of her narrative, characterisation and themes. To a large extent reflecting Lee’s experiences growing up in southern America the reader can appreciate and admire Lee’s indignation and distress at both the subtle and overt violence. From Watchman she has tempered her tone, smoothed her characterisation, and strengthened her story, and for these comparisons between the two texts Watchman is more than worthy of study.


Jessie NeilsonJessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for The Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.

First published takahe 87
August 2016