Disappointment is a result of expectation.
If you expect nothing, you’ll never be disappointed. But then, if you don’t expect something from an experience, it means you’re not invested in it. That you’re indifferent and neutral. At that point, is that experience even worth your time?
When I first heard Harper Lee had released a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, I was thrilled. I’d read that book a few months ago at the time, and snatches of Atticus and Scout and Jem were etched in my memory. That was 2017-ish. I’d stepped into my twenties, bright young thing, and had dutifully posted a photo of my reading journey on Instagram.
Go Set a Watchman would be a lovely way to relive those characters in a different, more mature light, I thought.
Life happened. So many other books took precedence over Lee’s second masterpiece. Indeed, it took a global pandemic and a second lockdown for me to get my hands on it. A lot had changed since Mockingbird, and far too much time between then and now.
However, my thrill remained unchanged. I still remembered Scout (although I might’ve accidentally said Scott in a few real-life conversations with friends), and I still loved the relationship between the old lawyer and his children, a reflection of my own relationship with my father, even though it was starkly different.
I had a lot to look forward to. Which is why the disappointment was enormous.
As readers, we last saw Scout as a pre-teen tomboy. When we see her again in the sequel, she’s 26 and a lady, more lady-like than I ever imagined she could be. Clearly, people are never who they were when they were adolescents. Disappointment 1. But it’s the reality. Harsh, but acceptable.
We then learn that she’s got a boyfriend now. Of course, she’s a straight woman of marriageable age. Why wouldn’t she have a boyfriend? But did it have to be her best friend, the one she grew up with? Cliché. Disappointment 2.
Still, it’s the ’50s, and the story’s set in small-town Maycomb. Having lived there all his life, Henry knows little of the life outside of his town. It’s probably not too surprising that he falls in love with what seems like the only girl in town. Speaking of which, where are all the other girls? Aside from showing up to a gossip party with stories of husbands and children, there aren’t many young women in town. Again, I tell myself, it’s a small town. Justifiable, to some extent.
We move on. Curiously, Jean Louise doesn’t know how to get into a car without hitting her head. She can drive, though. Sure, she lives in New York, where you don’t need a vehicle to commute, but come on, I’m 26 and can’t drive, but I still watch my head when I get into a car. Common sense.
Sure, Jean Louise’s character arc is to have her grow as a person. But there’s a difference between immature and nonsense.
If she’s mature enough to discard the name Scout and have people call her by her real name, Jean Louise (not Jean or Louise), then she’s mature enough to know how a car works, surely?
So disappointment 3: Jean Louise gives us a lot of mixed messages about who she is as a person.
Disappointment 4: “He poured himself a man-sized drink.”
Jem’s dead. And the only explanation we get is that he dropped dead on the street one day. He’d inherited his weak heart from their mother. Now I know that Jean Louise is the protagonist, and we’re interested in her personal growth. But I have a brother, and if he dropped dead suddenly, it’ll gnaw at my head and heart for as long as I live. Even if I recover from the initial shock, I’d still be unable to talk casually about wearing a hat to my brother’s funeral, with ‘he would’ve laughed at me’ as an afterthought. The absolute lack of acknowledgment for Jem’s death is alarming. Sure, there are a few mentions of it, but none seem enough. Disappointment 5.
It’s not all bad, though. Jean Louise lives in New York, and from the beginning, she’s doubtful whether she wants to marry Henry. Identity crisis, nicely done. Although, not. Fan of her leading him on to believe she’ll eventually say yes. Seems terrible, especially because he’s her best friend. Does she wonder if this would affect their friendship in the future? No, she doesn’t.
Jean Louise visits Calpurnia. Shows there’s still some love there. There’re a few pleasant moments for a while. Flashbacks to how Cal took care of the Finches are all good additions. Again, there’s one random instance of Jean Louise recollecting how Jem was Cal’s precious little Jem. It makes you wonder, as a reader, and want more, but the train of thought ends abruptly, leaving you wondering why she brings Jem up in the first place.
Childhood memories. I enjoyed these anecdotes, even though some were a bit drab. There’s some mild emotion as Jean Louise speaks about how Jem’s good friend, who went to Europe in the army, is the only one they hadn’t personally told about Jem’s death. Found out about it from the paper. That’s a grim way to hear your best bud passed away prematurely. It’s a helpful detail in the overall narrative. Even though it doesn’t do much to move Jean Louise’s story forward, it’s one of the more solid acknowledgments to Jem’s death.
Dr. Finch. No one can hate an eccentric old doctor. He’s exactly what Jean Louise needs—someone who’d tell her to shut up and listen, and when she doesn’t, slap hard enough to make her pause and reflect. I don’t support violence as punishment, especially for children, which is why I like that it comes from her uncle and not her father. From his interactions with Jean Louise throughout the story, we see that, like Atticus, he takes things in his stride, but he’s also a strong guardian and a second parent who watches her back. Every kid needs that—someone they can talk to other than their parents. The relationship dynamic between the two is interesting—unlike with Atticus, Jean Louise is far more direct and curt with her uncle without having worrying about hurting him or how he’d perceive her. In many ways, he’s helping her figure herself out. I also find it quite amusing that Jean Louise thinks of him as bat shit crazy when he’s probably the sanest person in the story.
Of course, all of these are small things that cumulate into my big fat opinion. But there’s also one big fat thing that takes my opinion from fat to dangerously obese.
Jean Louise is a 26-year-old independent woman who lives in New York among, possibly, a myriad of people from all ways of life. We see some reference to black people being a part of her everyday life, which is why she’s so indignant when her townsfolk look down on them. We see her as a modern-ish, socially aware young person. All that’s brilliant.
But she doesn’t understand human nature.
She can’t process the fact that her father is an ordinary man with complex emotions. That he has his own opinions and that he doesn’t have to embody her beliefs.
Of course, she’s disappointed in her father. She has expectations of him, as we all do of people we admire and look up to, and when Atticus doesn’t live up to those expectations, she’s upset. Just like I was with this book. That’s understandable.
But her reaction to all this is bizarre. She responds as if she’s never been disappointed in her life before. To me, that signals a bigger problem. She’s either never had people oppose her views or never had a genuine relationship with anyone else. The foundation of any relationship is trust, knowing you’ll still get hurt along the way. Even long-lasting couples would have conflicting opinions and disappointments. 26 years is a long time not to have known that.
Dr. Finch explains to Jean Louise that she’s so upset with Atticus because she regarded him as god. As someone who can never make a mistake. Now, we’ve all done this. We place our heroes (actors, musicians, writers, politicians, even) on high pedestals, thinking they’re perfect and incapable of anything less than godliness. That’s how humans work—we stupidly seek idols all the time. But we don’t do that with people closest to us, regardless of how much we adore them. If you’re close to someone, you’ll notice their flaws. That’s why it’s easier to set the god status to people we can’t reach—the distance enables our blindness.
That’s not the case with Jean Louise. She loves her dad dearly and grew up with him around. Even if she hadn’t realised his humanity then, she should’ve when she left home. Coming back every year should’ve opened her eyes little by little.
There’s a lot of psychological complexity to unpack in this story. Strangely, that’s also good—it’s made me mull it over, and that’s always a positive thing in book marketing.
In the middle of the book, we hear Jean Louise was born colour blind—a fact she doesn’t know (how?!). An odd detail to throw in at mid-point. However, towards the end, we go back to it, as Dr. Finch informs her she’s colour blind, referencing that to their conversation about black and white people. I’m not a fan of using “colour blind” in that context for many reasons. Disappointment 6.
The racism in this book is brazen, and coming from educated adults, it’s… ignorant. That does feel real.
I’ve learnt from various online reviews and commentary that this book was supposedly a ‘crappy initial draft’ never meant to be published. It’s also not a sequel. Makes sense. There’s just too much going on for it to be one complete piece of work. Apparently, this was the original, which Harper Lee then upgraded and published as the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird. That does make me feel better—if Lee had indeed turned Watchman into Mockingbird, then damn, she’s one good writer, with a kickass editor.