For this post I am going to be ignoring the moralistic argument about whether Harper Lee was tricked into letting this book be published and whether she was mistreated by the agent who found it. Instead I am going to be looking at the novel from a purely literary perspective and discussing the pros and cons of seeing Go Set A Watchman in print.
It’s safe to say that To Kill A Mockingbird fans were split down the middle when this book was discovered, however I was in the company of people who were buzzing with the same excitement I felt for it. To see more of the Finches felt like an opportunity to be grasped with both hands, that could not be ignored, but rather needed to be savoured. Therefore, as soon as I had a spare £10 in April I preordered the book and on the morning of the 14th July when it was finally on the shelves, I was at Waterstone’s for the minute it opened.
I finished Go Set A Watchman the same day I bought it, as I spent the majority of the day just sitting and reading it. As I read I found myself disappointed and talking to a friend on Facebook about it, I realised I wasn’t the only one. Around two hundred pages in I was giving the book 3 out of 5, and my friend at 100 pages in was giving in 2 out of 5. When I finished the novel and updated my GoodReads information with it, I gave it that rated of 3 stars, however, I have not been able to stop thinking about it since which is what lead me to wonder if the novel should have been published in the first place.
There are several things to take into consideration when looking at Go Set A Watchman and I believe a lot of readers, myself included, were expecting a novel with the literary brilliance of To Kill A Mockingbird to follow on from the novel and show us years later. What we did not take into consideration is that Go Set A Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird were never designed to exist in the published world together. Go Set A Watchman was written before To Kill A Mockingbird and was the first draft sent to a publisher. After redrafting and redrafting Go Se A Watchman became To Kill A Mockingbird. When Go Set A Watchman was discovered, it was printed without editing.
There are two important things to look at when considering Go Set A Watchman, in my opinion. The first is the similarities with the first published novel. As we have mentioned this novel was never designed to exist alongside To Kill A Mockingbird and it is difficult to remember that it was not written as a sequel. As we read it more than 50 years after to original was written and see it set 20 years later, it is difficult to disconnect what we see and how it was intended. Go Set A Watchman has received criticism regarding the fact that there are passages that are exactly the same or extremely similar to passages in To Kill A Mockingbird. This is grossly unfair to Lee, as a writer when redrafting most things would have changed but there are always going to be passages, ideas, characteristic, plot points that remain similar or the same. There are some things that work from the first draft even when nothing else does. It should be expected that there would be similarities like this.
The second important consideration is the lack of literary excellence in Go Set A Watchman. There is a lot floating around in reviews and discussions claiming that this new novel is not as well written as To Kill A Mockingbird and again this is unfair on Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird was a novel that had been drafted, edited and made ready for publication while Go Set A Watchman is a draft that had been left for 50 years, unedited, untouched and unintended for publication. To Kill A Mockingbird has been held up for it’s use of language from the moment it was published. The language is so simplistic because it is told from the point of view of a young child, however it is written in such a taut and powerful way that it sticks in the reader’s mind and have become so influential to hundreds and thousands of people. That language within Go Set A Watchman is less taut, less structured and I struggled with it for a while because I felt there was a lack of plot to it. However, this should have been expected from a novel before the stages of redrafting.
Despite this, I believe it needs to be said that the novel is not badly written from beginning to end, throughout it, it is clear that Lee knows and cares for her characters and she expresses them all so clearly and believably. It took over 200 pages, but the scene where the reader saw Jean Louise and Atticus fighting because she finally saw her father as a human being not as this perfect god like person she had held him up to be, I finally found myself gripped by the situation and Lee truly pulled me into Jean Louise’s position as I felt the same betrayal, anger, upset and confusion that she did. However, that only came because of my understanding of To Kill A Mockingbird, the scene would’ve been difficult to been emotionally connected to without the knowledge of how Atticus acts in To Kill A Mockingbird. Through this I believe Go Set A Watchman needed to be rewritten as To Kill A Mockingbird to truly allow the reader to connect with the characters and the story and to truly understand the situation.
Coming to attempt to answer the question in the title, should Go Set A Watchman have been published? Probably not. It is not fair for an author of such a masterpiece as To Kill A Mockingbird to be judged for a first draft that was never supposed to see the light of day. However; do I regret reading it? Not at all.