Go Set A Watchman Summary

Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman

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Go Set A Watchman Summary

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Go Set a Watchman is a 2015 novel by Harper Lee. While it contains numerous characters, settings, and themes common to her Pulitzer Prize winning classic To Kill a Mockingbird, ultimately, it is viewed as neither a sequel nor a prequel to Mockingbird, but rather as an earlier draft of what became the 1960 release that until Watchman was her only published novel. The title is from the Biblical verse Isaiah 21:6, “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” The quote suggests the view of Jean Louise Finch towards her father Atticus, who has been her moral guide, and the changes that take place as she realizes the depth of the prejudice that exists in her hometown, Maycomb, Alabama. The third person narrative is filtered through the perspective of Jean Louise, the grown up Scout from Mockingbird. When Watchman was originally submitted to publishers in the late 1950s, it is believed that an editor asked Lee to rework it with the focus becoming Scout’s point of view as a young child.

Go Set a Watchman takes place in the 1950s, about twenty years after Mockingbird. Here, Scout, the twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise, is visiting Maycomb for her annual trip from her home in New York City. Her childhood friend Henry (Hank) Clinton meets her. Henry is employed by Jean Louise’s father, the attorney Atticus Finch. Atticus is seventy-two years old and a former state legislator. Jean Louise’s paternal uncle, Jack, is something of a mentor to her and is a retired doctor. Alexandra, the sister of Jack and Atticus, has taken charge of the family home as the maid, Calpurnia has retired. The community is unsettled following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the emerging visibility of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.

When returning home from a visit to Finch’s Landing, Jean Louise and Henry encounter a group of black men in a car traveling at a high rate of speed. Henry remarks that blacks in the area can now afford cars but do not concern themselves with insurance and licenses. There are flashback sequences of Jean Louise as a child and her times spent with friend Dill Harris and her older brother, Jem (Jeremy). Jem, it is learned, has died of the same heart disease, which claimed their mother’s life. In the present time frame, Jean Louise finds a pamphlet “The Black Plague” among Atticus’s papers, which prompts her to follow him to a meeting of the citizens’ council. There, Atticus presents a man who proceeds to deliver a racist speech to the gathering. Jean Louise has been watching from a balcony and is shocked. She flees the building, feeling betrayed by her father.

Jean Louise has a dream about Calpurnia, the black maid who was her mother figure while growing up. She finds out from Atticus at breakfast the next morning that Clapurnia’s grandson killed a pedestrian the night before while driving a speeding car. In order to prevent the NAACP from getting involved in the case, Atticus agrees to take it on. Jean Louise pays a visit to Calpurnia and feels heartbroken when, although not rude, Calpurnia does not display the warmth she once had for Jean Louise. When she questions Jack about Atticus’s presence at the meeting, he explains to her that her father has not turned into a racist but that he is attempting to slow down the federal government’s increasing involvement with local governments. He tries to explain to her that southern politics and race relations have a deep history that is very complex.

Although Henry has viewed Jean Louise as a love interest, she does not feel the same towards him and tells him that over coffee one morning. She tells him how abhorrent she found it to see him and Atticus at the council meeting. He tells her that at times people have to do things they would rather not and that he remains on the council to make an impact on the town and to be able to make money. She calls him a hypocrite with whom she could never live and at that moment, sees a smiling Atticus listening nearby. Later Atticus tells Jean Louise that southern blacks are not prepared to handle full civil rights and the Supreme Court decision was neither a responsible action nor a constitutional one. She feels conflicted by her father’s words, as she finds them in opposition to everything he ever taught her.

Jean Louise then returns to the house and begins packing in anger. She complains to Jack about what has been going on, and he slaps her. He wants her to think about what has transpired and how she has reacted. He tells her she can bear things if she is her own person and not simply connected to her father and his viewpoints. She needs to see Atticus as a human, not some type of ideal. That evening, she arranges a date with Henry. She realizes that he has learned things in Maycomb that she has not, and thus, she can be nothing more to him than a friend. When she goes to Atticus with the intent of apologizing, he tells her he is proud of her and that she should always protect what she believes is right. As she leaves, she professes her love for Atticus and knows she is seeing him as simply a man for the first time in her life.