My Take on Go Set a Watchman

“This is well-written, but it comes across as a little bitter.”

That’s what my English teacher wrote on the first draft of an essay I had turned in, and I was annoyed.

The assignment was to write something based on either logos (convincing someone of your point through logic) pathos (making someone feel a particular emotion) or ethos (vaguely defined as changing someone’s mind about ethics or defending the rightness or wrongness of something).

My teacher said ethos was the hardest one to pull off effectively. A Hallmark commercial or a corny romance can make you cry or sigh. Anyone who can think and explain their thinking can create a good logical argument. But causing a reader to nod in agreement about something as touchy as morality…well, that was apparently tricky. He said we could try it, but he didn’t recommend it.

Guess which one seventeen-year-old Amy chose?

Yep. Ethos. (I was/am a bit of a showoff, and also incredibly stubborn.)

I stared at the evaluation again. “A little bitter”? I had thought my first draft was great…but when I read it again, I realized the teacher was right. The essay was a sarcastic, self-righteous, me vs. them rant.

So I started over entirely, writing an essay about judging others…and then realizing those same flaws in myself and coming to understand why the people I had once considered my enemies acted the way they did. It made the exact same point as the original, but in a completely different way.

I turned in that essay, and it came back with this comment: “Beautiful.”

Ever since then, I’ve learned. If you want to make people think, you can yell at ‘em and be bitingly sarcastic and so passionately right that you can’t understand how anyone disagrees with you, just like Jean Louise in Go Set a Watchman. You can take the moral high ground and fire down from there with your words and your actions. It might be true and important.

But it isn’t beautiful.

Watchman

If you want to change people, you need more grace. You need more stories. You need to cry a little before you start yelling and remember that you might love some of the people who disagree with you. You need to climb into their skin and walk around in it until you understand them just a little bit better. You need to see their awful, horrifying distrust and injustice in yourself too, like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

To me, Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird made the exact same point (all people deserve to be treated with justice), but in completely different ways.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman, and there’s a lot to think about within its pages (and, totally off subject, the scene with a high school Scout going to the school dance with the “fake bosom” is priceless). Besides that, the book has Harper Lee’s wickedly amusing turn-of-phrase and fun narrative techniques and a wake-up call for people who might be a little bit racist themselves.

But I am so, so glad To Kill a Mockingbird came first.

There’s been a lot of buzz about Watchman’s Atticus Finch being a racist and whether or not he’s consistent with the Atticus of Mockingbird. Read the book and we can discuss that all day long.

I do think most of the media chaos about Atticus's racism is exaggerated, though.

I do think most of the media chaos about Atticus’s racism is exaggerated, though.

That’s not the difference between the books that I found most significant.

To me, it was more important that Tom’s trial was briefly mentioned in Watchman—saying that Atticus won an acquittal.

To anyone who slept through high school English class…this is not how it went down in Mockingbird. In that novel, the verdict came back guilty.

Obviously, this is something the author changed as she wrote the story in Mockingbird. The reason, I think, is that the trial in Watchman was a simple reference to prove Atticus’s history of fighting for racial equality in the past (though Atticus’s brother points out that Atticus was really fighting for the ideal of justice). The Atticus in Watchman won because readers needed another reminder that Scout’s image of her father was perfect until it was destroyed.

The Atticus in Mockingbird lost because readers need to see Dill cry. By then, the story had become less about abstracts and social commentary. It wasn’t primarily about an issue; it was about people.

My favorite point of Watchman, though, was that people are complicated (and also not perfect).

My favorite point of Watchman, though, was that people are complicated (and also not perfect).

I found Watchman interesting, but I will always love Mockingbird, and those are two very different things. I think it’s what I needed as a self-righteous, tender-hearted, passionate fifteen-year-old. And maybe what the rest of the world needed too.

We needed to get angry at injustice, not at Henry and Atticus.

We needed to love Scout, not Jean Louise’s logic.

We needed to cry for the guilty verdict and, maybe more, our loss of innocence, not cry because we, along with Jean Louise, disagree with our heroes and wish they’d do us the favor of at least defending their (wrong) opinions so we can fight back.

After reading both books, I was very sure: Go Set a Watchman was about Jean Louise.

To Kill a Mockingbird was about me. I knew it even as a fifteen-year-old, back when I wrote, “The verdict gave me a sudden desire to storm into the deliberation room and talk some sense into the jury, not just because an innocent man was convicted, but because only the children wept. The children…and me.”

On that essay, my English teacher wrote, “Stay a little more focused on the text and less on your emotions.” And I distinctly remember not caring one bit, not making one single change. Yes, because I was a bit of a showoff and incredibly stubborn. But also because I knew I—and Harper Lee—had written something a little less analytical and a little more beautiful.

12 comments

  1. Wow, great job, Amy! Interesting facts on both books. I’ve read neither, so I’m kind of on the outside looking in on this topic. But I was still able to enjoy the post. 🙂
    Pretty much my only question regarding Go Set A Watchman was that it was by the same guy, yet the copyright dates were roughly 50 years apart. I thought the author was an older guy when he wrote the first one.
    And I also thought I was bad about procrastinating on my sequel… 😉

    1. It’s the oddest publishing process ever. Super unique. Harper Lee wrote Watchman first. Her editor said, “Those flashback scenes sound more interesting–why don’t you write that book instead?” So she went back in the setting 20 years to write Mockingbird. This year, the earlier-written, later-set Watchman was discovered and published with just proofing changes, not content changes. So it’s not a true sequel at all. A little like the two Star Wars trilogies, except more complicated and not planned out ahead of time.

      1. Whoa, that is really weird! Interesting… that’s a strange way to write a book, too. But it makes a lot more sense as far as the author. Not that she’s had a sequel brewing in her mind this whole time. 😛

  2. Thanks for this very nice reflection. I am intrigued by your former teacher’s distinctions among logic/pathos/ethos. This is something I would like to hear more about, if you ever choose to discuss it in a later blog post. Out of curiosity, hat exactly did you write your “ethos” paper about?

    1. Hi John! I’m afraid I can’t remember enough to elaborate too much on the ethos/pathos/logos bit. We were just supposed to write a personal essay on something that took one of those as the tone. Sadly, since I had a severe case of senioritis by that point, I don’t recall the details. And the essay was pretty much on the social commentary on the popularity stratas of high school.

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