It's complicated: 5 themes you missed in Go Set a Watchman

  • Prerna Madan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 09, 2016 15:56 IST

Literary geeks and critics have often considered Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird one of the best novels ever written, and justly so. Mockingbird was primarily admired for reflecting the racism still prevalent in the American south, but its recently released chronological sequel Go Set a Watchman has been a Pandora's Box of more complex and mature themes.

Watchman, published on July 14 this year, is essentially -- an evolution. It is the journey of Jean Louise, who has grown from the 6-year-old, "colour blind", tom-boyish girl idolising her father Atticus Finch to a 26-year-old grappling with his "betrayal" of turning racist overnight.

Sure, as expected, one of the primary motifs of the novel is racism, but unlike its predecessor, Watchman explores other themes, even as racial prejudice is the underlying thread weaving the issues into a narrative.

If you haven't already read it, here are 5 more reasons to do so:

Blurring the lines between good and bad

To Kill a Mockingbird was a simplistic perception of Scout, (Jean Louise's pet name) looking at the world with the binaries of good and bad, right and wrong in an evidently Manichean vision. If there is one thing Watchman taught us, it is that no single individual is either of the extremes.

Even the much revered Atticus, who supposedly championed the cause of an innocent African American in To Kill a Mockingbird, is now viewed in his entirety. Jack Finch/ Dr Finch, Atticus's brother and Jean Lousie's uncle, rightly explains this approach -- Atticus may not significantly oppose Klu Klux Klan, a group popular for advocating white supremacy, and even think of it just as a "political organisation", but he will "be the first one to try and stop it" if they resort to violence.

And Atticus is not the only contentious character of Mockingbird. Dr Finch tells Jean Louise in one of their conversations, "You've never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you're still unable to think racially. You see only people."

"But Uncle Jack, I don't especially want to run out and marry a Negro or something." -- is her response, clearly giving away the boundaries of her conscience.

Although Jean Louise talks about equal rights for all and equal opportunities for all, yet, an inter-racial marriage is out of her moral domain.

So who really is good or bad? The question arises -- Is there even an absolute definition.

No dearth of childish innocence

Go Set a Watchman still retains some delightful elements of Mockingbird as Harper Lee revokes the past in vibrant contours (To be fair, Harper Lee finished writing Go Set a Watchman in 1957, and justly claimed it to be the "parent" of To Kill a Mockingbird).

Even though several earlier characters are missing, for instance Jean Louise's brother Jem, their summer companion Dill and the infamous 'Boo' Radley who used to put the kids' imaginations on an overdrive; they are still a consistent part of Jean Louise's and the reader's memory, never really eliminated from our conscious.

To our relief, Watchman keeps alternating between the past and present with flashbacks -- Jean Louise transforms into Scout again and the reader can almost reminiscent the child-like quality of story-telling, remember the starry-eyed wonder in the children's eyes, recall embarrassing school dances and the ups and downs of a brother-sister relationship.

That is precisely what the author has not taken away, not completely anyway.

A tale of love and familial relationships

The story is as much about racism in American south as it is about relationships. Jean Louise and the reader feel "cheated" when Atticus's racism revealed itself, but have you wondered why.

The answer dawns on Jean Louise right at the end, with a little help from Uncle Jack. The child had to first "destroy" and "obliterate" the idolised version of her father to be able to see him as a human, as flesh, bones and blood, in all his raw edges.

"He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being."

Relate this to the personal disenchantment of almost every child when one grows up to realise that parents are after all, just human beings, a pack and parcel of their individual follies, strengths and prejudices.

Atticus may be racist; it doesn't necessarily mean he is a 'bad' father. In fact, in so far as his paternal side is shown, he continues to be the ideal one, for he "hoped that a daughter of mine'd hold her ground for what she thinks is right -- stand up to me first of all".

Moving on, the reader also witnesses Jean Louise's "affair" with Henry, a new character who was introduces as Jem's friend and eventually mentored by Atticus. Henry aspires to rise above his lower social standing by educating himself, becoming a successful lawyer (not unlike Atticus again) and marrying Jean Louise.

But alas! The protagonist likes him, procrastinates over marrying him but knows she does not love him. By the end, Jean Louise's concedes that she has to "let him down" gently.

Harper Lee

Remnants of sexism in America's Deep South

On the face of it, it appears that the protagonist is more often than not, a woman of her choice. She is defiant, fiery, lives in the New York, maintains a career, holds independent, liberal views and disagrees with most of Maycomb's, an exemplary southern town set in the background of the novel and inspired by Lee's hometown Monroeville, conventions and traditions.

Yet, the text is filtered with subtle hints. "Catch a woman", "make them (women) feel helpless", "He was her true owner" (Henry thinking about Jean Louise) indicate a pattern of hegemony, latching on to the idea of a typical southern belle, albeit in lesser quantities.

It seems, just like racism, gender equality is also granted only when it is convenient for the townsfolk to do so. It can be snatched as in when it disturbs the calm waters of Deep South.

Harper Lee's final trick: A shift in narrative

Perhaps a masterstroke by Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird was to provide a false lull of warmth. Looking at the world from 6-year-old Scout's eyes was reassuring in the most primitive ways -- it was largely devoid of the intricacies of her adult life. It was what made Mockingbird uniquely wonderful.

In Go Set a Watchman, not only Jean Louise but the reader too is jolted into adulthood, like a band-aid being pulled off rapidly, the pain of losing a character graced by the charm of Gregory Peck in the movie adaptation.

Authors love to play such tricks. It is no wonder then, that most readers failed to recognise that the narrator in Mockingbird was the 6-year-old Scout, whose story-telling could possibly be marred with rosy glasses and make for an unreliable narrator.

It is indeed cruel, but may be, like Jean Louise, the time is to evolve.

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