The controversy surrounding Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” – now widely accepted as the first draft of Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” despite many contradictory elements – centres around the unexpected bigotry of Atticus Finch, yet its bigger problems include less-than-ideal development of its characters (perhaps with the expectation, especially of the publisher, that readers would be familiar with “To Kill a Mockingbird”), poorly written dialogue, as well as non-existent plot development. The unfortunate result is a cast of unmemorable characters who instead appear to resemble stereotypes of their time, who engage in lengthy but dreary conversations which do little to advance their characterisation, and who leave too many questions unanswered and too many tensions unresolved.
Through a third-person narrative, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s trip back to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama – for her annual fortnight-long visit – is primarily anchored by her relationships with her father, Atticus Finch, her childhood sweetheart Henry “Hank” Clinton (and who works for her father), and her aunt, Alexandria Finch. Amidst her fairly mundane errands in the house and encounters in the city, she has flashbacks of her childhood experiences in Maycomb, and there are broader discussions about race relations in the American political context. This monotony is punctured when Jean Louise discovers “The Black Plague” pamphlet among her father’s papers, and further when she witnesses Atticus introducing a man who delivers a racist and offensive tirade against the African-Americans at a Citizens’ Council meeting.
In reference to the titular metaphor of the “watchman” (or the moral compass) and the related themes of family and racial relationships, “Go Set a Watchman” then climaxes with Jean Louise’s confrontations with Hank, Atticus, and her uncle Jack Finch. Beyond the awkward and rambling structure of the arguments which advance the plot in a laboured manner, the motivation for and the approach to the eventual resolution – coming to terms with the prevalence of racism in her community and the pragmatic responses to incidents, and seeing Jean Louise seeing Atticus as a man rather than as a larger-than-life figure – seem unsatisfactory. The visit and accident involving Calpurnia and her grandson are left unaddressed too, besides Atticus’s decision to take up the case to prevent the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People from being involved. Too much is left unsaid, and what is said is not always clear.