GO SET A WATCHMAN: WHAT DOES IT SAY?

Atticus Finch, the greatest American hero as voted by the American Film Institute. And Atticus has been chosen so for his character traits – anti-racial, humanely and straight family man.

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ gave us Atticus Finch in 1960. Since then, 55 years have passed. All these years have added to the aura of the character making him the cultural icon of generations – the aura that also added to the anticipation run towards ‘Go Set A Watchman’, Harper Lee’s second book after 55 years of publication of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a timeless classic and its popularity was amplified globally by the movie of the same name based on it. The movie came within two years of the book – in 1962 – and the quick film adaptation took the appeal of the book even far and wide.

In fact the global appeal of Atticus Finch, outside America, owes largely to the film version of the movie and has become a cultural phenomenon with changing times – in times when racism in legally illegal.

So, it was natural that ‘Go Set A Watchman’ became the most awaited book in recent times when Harper Lee announced that she was breaking her vow – never to get a book published again. A pro-racism Atticus Finch, the 180 degree departure from the character that we inherited from ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, added intense rounds to everything that was being said and discussed about the book.

The book, when out on stands, met with mixed reactions.

‘Go Set A Watchman’ raises more questions as we move ahead with the plot leaving the reader grope in dark with many unanswered questions. The published book is essentially a sequel to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. There will be many who know about the work but haven’t read the book or seen the movie. They, too, will be tempted to have the book based on intense reviews and word of mouth publicity around it. And they will find such questions nagging them.

But let’s see the scoring points first:

The book is not sequel to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. In fact, as reported, it was written prior to the publication of Harper Lee’s classic. Coming after 55 years of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, it needed some rework, but as Harper Lee had said she would never publish a book again, the lapses are tangible. But the rework on Jean Louise Finch as making her narrator and main protagonist is logically done here. It was logical to read the next story after ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ from her POV.

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was idealistic. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ is realistic. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ came at a time when legal racial segregation was fighting last phase of its battle in America. The book added to the sentiments in stirring a nation’s conscience and Atticus Finch became a cultural symbol of anti-racial struggle in the US society. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ has come at a time when the US is seen largely anti-racist. Now is the time when people can look back in the past, as done from time to time, in movies, in books, to see how the people of South saw racial discrimination then.

The silent answer by Calpurnia (page 160) – when Jean Louise Finch asks her – is pensively and profoundly expressed by ‘bearing the burden of her years’. More than anything else, this sentence captures the essence of the theme the book is based on.

Character development of Henry Clinton is realistic, is according to the times prevalent in ‘then south’. He may sound submissive at times, but this he does for his love – and that is understood. And so is understood his logic when he justifies his and Atticus Finch joining Citizens’ Council meeting and their views on racial segregation – and his views of staying back and conforming to social norms of ‘then Maycomb’.

Transition of Jean Louise Finch characters, though, deserves more words, her meeting with reality of the day (and of the society) is logically explained in the book – ‘prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends – ‘uncle Jack Finch’ tells Jean Louise (page 270-271). Irrespective of the word flow between Jean Louise and her uncle in chapter 18, the sentence essentially corresponds to the realization Jean Louise has – from Scout/Jean Louise’s faith in Atticus Finch that prejudices her thoughts to the extent that she starts looking at everything from her POV and Atticus becomes a repulsive figure in her life – to a POV that retains her faith in Atticus Finch, his father and a social man of Maycomb.

Now, let’s see where the book leaves room for questions with unexplained developments and loose plot elements.

Well, for me, the book really begins with its 100th page when the element, being debated day in and day out, around the world, is introduced – that gives us first indication that Atticus Finch has ‘turned’ racial.

The book is basically about Scout’s struggle on this revelations – that her father, the man for all seasons in her life, and his best man whom she contemplates to get marry are ‘segregationists’ – with ‘segregation’ being an act on racial lines against the black people.

But the book, till its 100th page, doesn’t indicate that this one is going to be the central plot. In my opinion, the book fills first 100 pages in telling us the plot elements that are so routine – especially when you read ‘Go Set A Watchman’ after reading and watching ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.

There are pages in the book that readers can scan and pass. Yes, a book requires pages to set its theme, to introduce the plot elements, but 100 pages for it are too long for a 278 page book the version that I have – or for any book. (William Heinemann: London)

Even for many fans of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, this is like ‘questionable’ jump, from one plot theme to the unexpected next. Because, till 100 pages, the author doesn’t give us even a hint about racial preferences and thoughts of a grown-up Jean Louise Finch. And then there she is – in words that begin to weave something from 100th page.

The book also doesn’t delves into characterizing and developing who Jean Louise Finch is. Her preferences about life, her views about social issues including racial discrimination (including segregation and segregation itself) desire words and pages that Harper Lee has not given her.

‘Go Set A Watchman’ doesn’t explain her internal struggle on racism before we are suddenly thrust into the sudden transition of character’s thought process on the issue. The book needed to create a background here with personal memoirs and experiences – especially in terms of Scout’s life in New York – but Harper Lee probably left that to the readers.

The book explains well about Scout’s coming of age about her father but leaves much to be done on developing a character that is sensitive and make opinions but doesn’t fight.

To continue..

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

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