Go Set A Watchman: A classic in its own right

Author’s Note: Plot details are divulged: Spoiler Alert.

I am sure many readers such as myself have been hoping, praying and even begging that Harper Lee would publish a second novel. Lee has only published one work, the literary classic, To Kill A Mockingbird which was first published 55 years ago. On July 14, 2015, the literary community was granted their elusive wish when Harper Lee released her second novel, Go Set A Watchman.

Several news outlets, including Entertainment Weekly, have reported Go Set A Watchman has sold over 1.1 million copies in its first week of print. These skyrocketing sales records give the novel the distinction of being the fastest-selling book in HaperCollin’s publishing history. Considering the flurry of press surrounding this historic release, I wanted to offer my own review and insights on this significant literary achievement.

The timeline of events surrounding the publication of Go Set A Watchman is as unique as the text itself. Go Set a Watchman was originally written by Lee before her classic work To Kill A Mockingbird but the story itself chronologically takes places after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird unfold. Deciding against the work, Lee shelved the piece and began work on To Kill A Mockingbird instead. It was not until late 2014 that Lee’s lawyer discover the original Go Set A Watchman manuscript attached to an old typeset of To Kill A Mockingbird stored in a safe deposit box. The skewed timeline of composition has led some readers to consider the work a sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird, whiles others consider the text an early draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird.

Excitement about the work’s discovery and the impending publication soon spread. However, quickly after the release many news outlets expressed disappointment as well as a narrow-minded reading of the text. In another opinion piece in this issue of The Beacon, I discuss the controversy surrounding Go Set A Watchman and the media coverage of its release.

If I had to classify Go Set A Watchman, I would categorize the piece as a separate entity; not a rough draft or sequel. However, Go Set A Watchman has fallen prey to the sequel category since some of To Kill A Mockingbird’s characters return. Scout and Atticus are still the main focus of Lee’s new work. However, Jem, a major protagonist of Lee’s earlier work, has died. Sadly, no mention of the famous Bo Radley is made within the second work.

While Go Set A Watchman examines events from To Kill A Mockingbird in retrospect, a reader who (God forbid) has never read the classic text would not be left out of the loop while reading Go Set A Watchman. Given Lee’s context of previous events and a reader’s inclination to critical thinking, Go Set A Watchman can be viewed correctly as a separate entity.

The media frenzy surrounding Go Set A Watchman focuses on Atticus’ recent racism and few articles mention the major factor that allows Go Set A Watchman to step out of To Kill A Mockingbird’s shadow: Scout’s emergence as a hero. Thus, furthering Go Set A Watchman’s classification as a separate work. Clearly, Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson brands him as the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird. However, in Go Set A Watchman Lee does exactly what she has built her literary career upon: she turns the tables on the reader in order to break societal stereotypes.

In Go Set A Watchman, Atticus is no longer the knight in shining armor. When Scout confronts Atticus about his changing views, she is shocked, horrified, and betrayed. The reader cannot help but share her feelings as both Scout and the reading public see their hero tarnished. As the reader sympathizes with Scout, he or she begins to see Scout as the hero of the text. Scout follows her conscience and ignores the “collective conscience” of the town and her father. As Scout adheres to her morals, the reader begins to follow their own conscience. The reader views Scout in terms of her own humanity instead of associating her with Lee’s other characters.

Allowing the reader and the character to simultaneously follow their own consciences, not only connects a reader to a character but is the basis of Lee’s literary career. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus’ defense of Robinson establishes him as the cornerstone of the morality, thus bonding him with the readers. Go Set A Watchman allows Lee to create the same type of link but this time with Scout.

Go Set A Watchman is not a rehashing of a previous classic but a classic in its own right as Scout teaches the reader more about themselves and more about the truths of those we love and idolize than a simple sequel or retelling. The shocking twist of Scout’s development as a hero and the realization that To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus is not the cornerstone of morality but a human with faults, allows the reader to appreciate Go Set A Watchman as its own benchmark.