May 23, 2020

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: A Truly Philosophical Piece

By Gbade Gabriel






I don’t understand men at all

The phrase materializes in different scenes across the entire novel, and each time, with different essence to its meaning (and use).

Jean Louise (firmly in her mid-twenties) is returning to her little town of Maycomb from a long trip to New York to reconnect with her family, particularly her ailing father (Atticus Finch). She soon finds that her short trip home would induce a radical shift in her; one which forces her to confront her perception of her little hometown and by extension, her entire universe:

Maycomb is a town still backwards in its use of segregation to keep blacks unemployed and poor whilst the white-folk cling fast to a dysfunctional-but-effective system of society completely devoid of industry. This creates an environment that is boiling hot with subtle hostility (the ache of racism dulled to a dim pang effused only in subtext)… the key figures in this hushed racial war have micromanaged the situation so only the effected (minority) are exposed to its full radiation – forced to live at the frays of the society – whilst some people are aloof in a cloud of hazy ignorance… some people like Jean Louise…

Jean Louise wrestles with the dual nature of her personality; the tomboy crammed in the body of a woman. These personas clash periodically and the result sometimes creates ripples which evolve into shockwaves in her little town.

In one instance she went swimming with her childhood friend (and love interest) Hank. She woke up the next morning, her name flying off the tongue of every gossip in town; the news was that she had gone dipping naked with her father’s assistant… Jean Louise, for a fact, had her clothes on when she was pushed into the water by Hank. This occurrence is simply a byproduct of their inherent childishness and the job was left for their adult characters to clean up the mess their puerile personas had trudged in…

The reader would soon find the story an engaging experience as one is betimes privy to crucial facts the protagonist is yet ignorant to. This serves to make the entire reading experience a commemorative task. Brilliant writing.

Harper Lee manages to convey a coming-of-age story (with quasi adult-youth overtones); Jean Louise is forced to come to terms with (and rethink her perception of) existential crises such as:


-racism (& segregation)

-feminism in a stubbornly traditional settlement


-marriage (voiced through Hank who repeatedly asks for her hand in matrimony)

she is forced to deal with these crises whilst uncovering tectonic truths about her town, her family and herself… Jean Louise is constantly disillusioned at an environment she knew but understood so little about…

The effects of the town’s backward approach to modernization causes crucial friction between Jean Louise and many other characters: one of which is her Aunt, Alexandra, who despises every shade of revolutionary attitude Jean Louise displays (laying critical comment on her fashion tastes, her mannerisms, language et cetra).

Primarily told in a multilinear pattern which entrenches the current characters in the nostalgic (bittersweet) memories one retains of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s other book, Go Set A Watchman is an elaborate unthinking process whereby the protagonist is presented with a different view of the world (her world) and her solitary task is either to accept (to truly ingest) this new ideology or reject it and bury any thought of it… there is no right decision… there’s simply a choice… and the series of occurrences that have led to her being presented with these choices:

A truly philosophical piece.

Go Set a Watchman was written before the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, her first and only other published novel (1960). Although initially promoted as a sequel by its publisher, it is now accepted as being a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird with many passages being used again. The title comes from Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees.”

About the reviewer: Gbade Gabriel is an editorial writer at Culture Dispatch blog, a platform of the Culture Advocates Caucus. He was the 2018 winner of the annual Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Book Review at the Lagos Book and Art Festival. He is currently building his second screenplay (character analysis and outline). “With it I attempt to capture the gradual loss of innocence in a character who’s been put down all his life (the underdog).. I’m exploring characters who are living in those grey areas outside our sphere of morality”. He could be reached on


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