Saturday, October 31, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was in primary school. I was around the same age as Scout Finch and nearly as naïve, but that did not stop me from enjoying the flavour of the prose. The book left a strong impression on me, and I knew that I had just read a great book even if I did not know exactly what made it great. It was only after I reread the book first driven by nostalgia and then because it was part of my syllabus in high school that I came to appreciate the various shades and nuances of life and human nature portrayed by the author. It has been one of my favourite books ever since I first read it, and I am certain that I will learn to appreciate it at ever greater depth as I grow older; but I do not mean to discuss TKAM here. I finished reading the much-hyped so-called sequel, Go Set a Watchman, a short while ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Much has already been written about this new book by Harper Lee; it has been widely reviewed and critiqued. The general consensus in the literary world seems to be that the book should have been left unpublished, as the author seems to have wanted to do all along. Though originally publicized by the media as a sequel to TKAM, it turns out that the script of GSAW was actually written a few years before TKAM, and Lee was encouraged by the publisher she saw about GSAW to work on the flashback scenes and childhood anecdotes mentioned in GSAW, which eventually led to the creation of the hugely popular American classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee herself refers to GSAW as merely”a pretty decent effort”, and I tend to agree. Having said that though, I would also like to point out that I find much of the scandalised outrage and wrath that the book has incurred greatly exaggerated and unnecessary and even unfair. I will justify my opinion in a bit.

The book starts with a train ride as Jean Louis “Scout” Finch returns from New York to her hometown Maycomb, a small town in Alabama. Jean Louis works in New York, and is on leave to visit her family and friends back home. “Family” is her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer struck by a bad case of arthritis, her uptight, prudish Aunt Alexandra and  her eccentric but lovable Uncle Jack. We are told that her older brother Jem had died of a heart failure a few years earlier, and Calpurnia, the black woman who had kept house and brought up the two Finch children was now too old to work and had been retired for some time. Then there is the boyfriend, Henry “Hank” Clinton, a childhood friend who has grown up under Atticus’s care and tutelage. Right from the beginning Jean Louis is keenly aware of the changes that her home town has been undergoing over the years. The activities of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and the subsequent change in the status of the coloured folks of the town has changed the atmosphere of the place. Jean Louis finds a pamphlet titled ‘The Black Plague’ in her house and follows her father and Hank to a Citizens’ Council meeting. There she sees Atticus introduce a man who then goes on to give a hate-speech laced with racial discrimination and hatred of the coloured community. The revelation that her father, the man that she has held to be the most fair and just person in her life, is really a racist, prejudiced individual shocks and traumatizes her. She tries to put her head around the entire scenario, but eventually goes on to have a hysterical breakdown. She screams at Hank and blames him for supporting racial prejudices. When he tells her that he is forced to do a lot of things that he does not necessarily enjoy doing just to be able to fit into society and keep his place, she remains unimpressed and angrily declares that she will never marry him. She turns around to leave only to find her father standing there smiling at her. He asks her to talk to him but she ends up insulting him bitterly. She goes to Uncle Jack for solace and advice, and he tries to tell her that Atticus hasn’t suddenly become racist, but is acting the way he is because he feels that the central government’s involvement in federal matters will be detrimental to the south. She also visits Calpurnia, who she has looked up to as a mother figure all her life, but is treated formally and coldly by her, making her realize how much relationships have soured up between white and coloured people. Jean Louis is shattered and scarred and decides to leave Maycomb for good, and is on the point of leaving when Uncle Jack returns and forces her to confront the issues on her mind. Jean Louis finds that she can now think about the events of the previous two days without breaking down, and Uncle Jack says that this is because she is now her own person and does not depend upon her father for everything. She has developed an individual conscience and can now treat her father as a man rather than a god who is always right. The book ends with Jean Louis apologizing to Atticus, who assures her that he is actually very proud of her, and she confesses that she loves him very much.

The language of the book, the style of writing are as lucid and engrossing as Mockingbird. Like TKAM, I found that the words have a flow that grips you and makes you carry on reading till you reach the conclusion. However, so little actually happens in a book that is nearly 300 pages long that you cannot help feeling more than a little disappointed, especially since you know how very rich in content the author’s other book is. Jean Louis is no longer referred to by her childhood nickname, Scout, and this sets the somber mood of the book. Fifty pages into the narrative I was already inwardly grumbling about the dark undercurrents and general air of gloom. TKAM was in no way a trivial, shallow writing; in fact it probably dealt with a greater plethora of serious subjects than the current book, and was a wider study of human nature, yet it had a feel-good factor to it that is completely missing in Watchman. Maybe that is in tune with the fact that Watchman deals exclusively with an adult world which sadly lacks the innate cheerfulness and innocence of childhood portrayed in Mockingbird.

The best bits of the novel are undoubtedly the parts where Jean Louis reminisces about various childhood memories with her brother and their childhood best mate Charles Baker Harris, or “Dill”. My pet peeve about this novel is the elimination of Jem, who was definitely one of my favourite characters from Mockingbird. The images that Jean Louis looks back to from her childhood all recall better times, which made me sad. It is unfortunate how human beings always look back wistfully to that which is gone, essentially because that which is is not satisfactory enough. I also found the character of Hank to be quite annoying. This bit I cannot fully justify, maybe because my dislike was instinctive and perhaps not even wholly reasonable. I found his strong desire to ‘fit in’ quite distasteful, as well as his tendency to want to hold Jean Louis back in Maycomb just because he wants to make a home there. But this may well be because I am not a very romantic person myself and don’t much understand the nuances of romantic love and belonging. All said, I was rather sadistically happy at Jean Louis’s decision not to marry Hank after all.

Coming to Atticus’s character: this is where all the uproar and indignation and controversy arises. The Atticus of Mockingbird seems to be an entirely different person than the man described here. The Atticus that the children knew growing up was very much the moral compass of Maycomb. Here, we see him as a rickety old man with a pronouncedly racist mindset, who looks down at coloured folks as lesser humans as yet not civilized enough to deserve full economic and political rights. This is a very strange and somewhat frightening revelation, to think that a man can change so much over time. What may be an even scarier thought is that he had been this way all along, and just happened to be a marvelous actor who hid his true nature from those who were closest to him all through their growing up years. I find this quite hard to believe though, and so I feel that it is essential to read Watchman without being too influenced by the characterizations of Mockingbird. On a personal note, the last time I read Mockingbird, I found myself a little disenchanted with Atticus. He was a wonderful man, a little too wonderful and perfect to be real. I dislike human beings who try to come across as perfect, and I felt that that was what he did at times. I do not believe such perfection is real, and I feel that being good and fair can sometimes be stretched too far (those who have read the book may recall the incident with Mrs Dubose, where I felt Atticus was downright cruel to Jem in his attempt to be fair to the old lady: but this is a debate for some other time). As such, I feel that the Atticus of Watchman is more real. He is far from perfect, and his faults are quite objectionable, but at least he comes across as more honest. I prefer an honestly imperfect man to a human masquerading as a ’god’ any day.

I must say I was rather disappointed with the way the character of Jean Louis has been portrayed here. It is true that finding out unpleasant truths about those you hold dearest to you is a painful thing. But the manner in which she handles such revelations is very immature and unpleasant. She screams and cries and throws tantrums and eventually has to be slapped to come back to her senses. That is certainly not the way for a woman in her mid-twenties to handle rough situations. Jean Louis uses crass language at her father, once again showing that in some ways she has failed to grow up after all. After a point, the reader stops empathizing with her and begins to feel annoyed and irritated at her naivete.

It is important to remember that Watchman was actually written before TKAM, even though the timeline of the events puts it up as a sequel of the latter. It was from the script of GSAW that the characters and setting and events of TKAM developed, and fructified into the magnificent piece of literature that it is. GSAW was the author’s first attempt at writing a novel, and it is should treated as such. It is important that the two books be read as separate novels altogether, in spite of the fact that to understand the various allusions and personal relations mentions in Watchman well one needs have read Mockingbird already. Reading the two books as unconnected narratives would ensure that the characters of Mockingbird are not undervalued or looked at cynically. Mockingbird by itself will remain a great American classic, and that should have nothing to do with Watchman, which is nowhere near that pitch of literary finesse.    

The conclusion I have reached is that Watchman is a decent read, but if you do plan on reading it, make sure you can look at it as an entirely separate narrative from Mockingbird, that in no way affects the quality or worth of the latter. If you cannot, give GSAW a miss. Mockingbird is one of those books that one should not die without reading; Watchman should have been left to repose in the author’s memories as her first attempt at writing, unknown to the world.

1 comment:

Shilpi said...


I’m glad you wrote after a long time and I’m more than glad that you wrote the detailed book review you have. I had thought of reading the book. I hadn’t read much of what had been written about the book though. After reading this review of yours and wondering off and on, I can quite safely say that I shan’t read the book. I know I cannot read it as a separate novel from To Kill a Mockingbird, and so I’ll pass it by. From the way you’ve teased apart the book and the characters in your review – and with precision – I wouldn’t know what to think of Atticus any longer. He didn’t come across as a Superman or a ‘god’ in TKAM to me but he seems to be an altogether a different character in this book, and not particularly likeable. And with Jem not being around and with Scout coming across as hysterical – I don’t see why I would want to read this book any longer.

I do think I should re-read TKAM sometime within this year. As far as I remember the last time and the only time I read it was back in school although I’m quite sure that I picked it out from the library the last winter I was in Lafayette. I need to see whether Atticus Finch comes across as being too good to be true. You sound like you’re scolding Mr. Finch from TKAM. I was wincing a bit. Back in my day, Mr. Atticus Finch came across as being one of those fine characters from books like Mr. Braithwaite for one and Mr. Herriot too…for me, I mean. I was postponing writing a comment because I was sure I could race through TKAM before that but now I’ve put off re-reading TKAM.

You probably know this bit but just in case: I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that Harper Lee’s agent told her to work with the material of GSAW and re-write the whole story from the perspective of the child/children. I also remember reading somewhere that a couple-friend of hers had given her a year’s allowance to write a book and that’s what she had done. TKAM had been the final end-point.

Your concluding line for this post made me grin very widely and made me chuckle. Too many people write reviews as though they must hold themselves away from what they are reviewing and sound like pompous asses in the process. What I liked best about your review is that bits of who you are as an individual emerge too. I wouldn’t want you to completely shove aside what you wrote in the concluding lines for your The Little Prince review though…but there is probably a bit of ‘Que sera sera’ to life.

I’ll hope that you write again soon on your blog.