Study Guide

Go Set a Watchman

By Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman Introduction

The Great GatsbyThe Perks of Being a Wallflower. The Little Prince. The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird

These books all stand alone, right? They don't need no stinkin' sequel. After all, what could possibly happen in a sequel? Daisy throws herself onto Gatsby's coffin? Holden tries L.A.?

Scout finds out that her father, Atticus Finch, harbors racist beliefs?

Pssshh. Never.

Uh, not so fast.

That list—and the world as we know it—changed on July 14, 2015 when To Kill a Mockingbird got a sequel that, until that year, no one knew existed: Go Set a Watchman. In that novel, Scout Finch—everyone's favorite tomboy in overalls from To Kill a Mockingbird—is all grown up. She now goes by her given name, Jean Louise, and when she returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, after living in New York City, she has to come to terms with her father's beliefs. Beliefs that are (to put it mildly) different from her own. Beliefs that are flat-out bigoted.

The story is that Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman prior to penning the iconic Mockingbird. So what happened? Well, Lee submitted it to a publisher, who rejected it. But with the editor's guidance, Lee re-shaped the book into what we now know as To Kill a Mockingbird. This makes Go Set a Watchman not just Mockingbird 2, but Mockingbird 1.0. It's like the beta test before the final product.

Because Lee wrote it before Mockingbird, that places the time of writing in the mid-1950's, smack in the middle of the landmark Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. Board of Education. This decision would integrate school systems and really start the Civil Rights Movement rolling.

This is also the time during which Go Set A Watchman is set. The residents of Maycomb, Alabama—where Atticus Finch once defended a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman—have opinions may surprise you. (Or they may not.)

And to make it all more exciting (and scandalous), the story of how Go Set A Watchman came to be published is almost as shocking as the content of Go Set A Watchman itself.

The famously reclusive Harper Lee, a woman who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her first (and presumably only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, basically disappeared from the public eye for years, rarely, if ever, granting interviews. She even once turned down Oprah.

Lee said she'd never write again, and, as far as we knew, she was telling the truth. But years pass. People get older. And eventually older unfinished works are found in a drawer, spruced up, and published. Fair enough, right?

Actually, that's where things get a little tricky.

Harper Lee, at the publication of Go Set a Watchman, was still alive, but ailing…and maybe unable to make decisions for herself. After Lee's long-time lawyer, her sister Alice, died, her friend Tonja Carter, took over the position. Soon, Carter found the manuscript, and HarperCollins published the book only with a light copy edit.

Some prominent publications say the book should never have been published. Many readers fear reading it, afraid to tarnish their image of whom they see as the most upstanding fictional father of all time, Atticus Finch.

And other people are ready to dive right in.

We're in the last category, and we recommend you come along for the journey with us. Everyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird should read this book…if only because it seriously tarnishes one of the most dubiously saintly characters in American fiction. Because, hey—what's more interesting than a 100% morally upright fictional do-gooder? Answer: a complicated, deeply flawed, shades-of-gray, influenced-by-his-surroundings fictional human.

Somewhere, in a parallel fictional universe, Atticus Finch just left the "Very Good People" table (probably populated by King Lear's Cordelia and Casablanca's Victor Laszlo) and went over to sit with Captain Ahab, Walter White, and Macbeth.

What is Go Set a Watchman About and Why Should I Care?

For almost exactly 55 years, To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book by Harper Lee. No one ever imagined going to Shmoop, looking at the page for To Kill a Mockingbird, and seeing it as the first book in a series.

Sure, it's just a series of two (for now), but it's a series.

If you were born after 1960, Go Set a Watchman is one of the biggest literary events of your life. No exaggeration. There will never be anything else like this. This book is to literature what Citizen Kane 2 would be to movies, or Half-Life 3 to videogames.

Whatever you think of Go Set a Watchman as a novel, there is no arguing that this book is one of the most important literary historical documents of the last century. It provides raw insight into the mind behind To Kill a Mockingbird. Getting to read this is like an architect getting to see blueprints for the Parthenon.

And whatever you think of To Kill a Mockingbird, you have to read Go Set A Watchman. If you love it, it provides an unprecedented look into the mind of the reclusive author. If you hate it, its content might help you prove to your friends that Mockingbird should no longer be considered a great American classic.

It also revives another conspiracy theory: the one that says Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote actually wrote Mockingbird. It's doubtful, unless Truman Capote actually killed Harper Lee in 1984—in cold blood, badoom-ching—and had been pretending to be her ever since, and this publication is his final vindication before his own demise. (Okay, we made that last part up, but think about it. That would be true Southern Gothic.)

To sum up all the bonkers nuttiness surrounding this book, Go Set a Watchman is like the Ark of the Covenant for American Lit nerds. You have to open the thing, even if it's going to burn your face off. Your level of face-meltage will vary depending on how much you revere Atticus Finch. If you've regarded him as a hero ever since your first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, you best keep a towel and a fire extinguisher handy.

No mockingbirds died during the writing of this book, but many childhood dreams might die during the reading of it.

Go Set a Watchman Resources

Websites

Double Harper Action
Who else but HarperCollins could put out Harper Lee?

Movie or TV Productions

Go Set a Key Grip
…said no one ever. The film adaptation of the book is just as complicated and controversial as the book itself.

Articles and Interviews

Appendectomy
The AV Club ponders if Go Set a Watchman is a sequel or a "curious appendix." Whatever it is, what should we do with it?

Hunka Hunka Burnin' Racism
If you're unsure how Atticus Finch can be compared to Elvis Presley, read this review.

Who Watches the Watchman?
What do porcupine mating rituals and reviewing a book written sixty years ago that may never have been meant to be published have in common? Both must be done very, very carefully. Michiko Kakutani tackled the prickly task for the New York Times, concluding that the book is a plea for empathy.

A Book by its Cover
Just as Watchman teaches us to look past our impressions of a person and dig deep inside them, these critics examine different covers of Go Set a Watchman and whether or not they accurately describe the book inside.

Book of Revelation
Instead of condemning the racist attitudes in Watchman, NPR's Code Switch team examines them as an important conversation point.

Loving Watchman
Many people do not like Watchman. Joni Rodgers is not one of those people. She explains why and how people can love the controversial new book.

Did Someone Say Controversy?!
Did you get this far without knowing about the controversy behind this novel? Vox will set you straight.

Making Bank
Controversy sells, and Go Set a Watchman set sales records. How much of that money goes to Lee's lawyer, who "found" the manuscript?

Nope-rah
Harper Lee turned down an interview with Oprah.

Video

She Needs a Hero
LA Times critic David L. Ulin postulates on Atticus's transformation from racist to hero.

Neither Rain Nor Snow Nor Crazy Fans
Go Set a Watchman forces us to confront many uncomfortable topics: racism, social class, and shipping deadlines.

Years Later
Scout the literary character isn't the only one who has grown up. So has Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film To Kill a Mockingbird, and who reads from Go Set a Watchman at this literary event.

BAM!
The most Southern thing about this Alabama discussion of Go Set a Watchman isn't the banjo music, but that it's sponsored by the South's biggest bookstore, Books-a-Million. BAM!

Audio

Doxxed, but in a Good Way
If you are unfamiliar with the "Doxology," which Chapter 7 revolves around, you can familiarize yourself with it on YouTube, without having to find a Methodist church.

Jean Louise with Her Spoon
Sweet Home Maycomb! Reese Witherspoon returns to Alabama to read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman.

Images

Headline News
"Court Rules Bus Segregation Unconstitutional." Seems like it should be a huge headline right? Front page news? Well, it's on the front page, but a little off to the side. Perhaps this is one of the real-life papers that Jean Louise (or Harper Lee) saw in New York.

Then and Now
Both Harper Lee and the world changed in the many years between her writing of the book and its publication, but her haircut didn't.