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An English Teacher's Perspective on Harper Lee's Sequel

Updated on January 28, 2021
Jackie Zelko profile image

I have been an English teacher for seven years now and love to share my thoughts with others about literature and teaching strategies.


Why I Decided To Read The Sequel

Each year, I teach Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth grade students. Each year, I fall in love with the characters all over again, and I grow more and more passionate teaching the themes that are revealed throughout the chapters. To Kill a Mockingbird was a novel that was taught to me in high school, and I believe it's important for all people to read it at some point in their lives. Atticus Finch is one of the many reasons why I cherish this novel greatly. He's an admirable character that stands for justice and morality.

Toward the end of my class's reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, I assigned them an objective article to read that informed the reader about Harper Lee's sequel called, Go Set a Watchman. The article discussed topics such as how the sequel got published and the connection it had with To Kill a Mockingbird. It sounded very interesting, and I felt like it could contribute in my lessons for next year. I eagerly started to think that it was time for me to sit down and finally read this new novel of Harper Lee.

Thoughts About Go Set a Watchman

I discussed my thoughts with a few colleagues of mine, and they completely agreed; it was a disappointment. The main issue I had with this novel is the way Atticus Finch is portrayed. Lee characterized him to be a person that the readers never thought he could be, a racist. Not only was Jean Louise upset to find out about the man he has turned into, but I was genuinely upset as well. Atticus Finch, the character that I've admired for so many years and teach to my students, no longer stands for justice and morality; he stands for hypocrisy. Atticus still presents himself and talks to Jean Louise the same as he did in To Kill a Mockingbird, but his values have shifted. The most infuriating part of this novel is that Atticus genuinely believes that his new values are what's best for Maycomb. It did, however, provide me some comfort that Lee kept Jean Louise's character consistent with her previous novel.

Another issue I had with this novel was Lee's diction. It's quite possible I only noticed because I have read To Kill a Mockingbird twice a year for several years, but her diction was exactly the same in Go Set a Watchman. It is expected that an author who writes a sequel will have similar vocabulary when it comes to discussing the same topics from the previous novel. However, there was no variety outside of those topics. I do like that the structure was consistent to her first novel, but the connection to the title emerged in a very similar way as it did with To Kill a Mockingbird. My only wish in this aspect is that it should've been written differently in a way that set itself apart from To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman takes place about twenty years after Lee's first novel; it's not a saga. There should have been more variety.

The last issue I had with this novel is that the plot got confusing in a few chapters. The dialogue between the characters sometimes didn't make sense. At times, I thought maybe I had become distracted with background noise, so I would read certain pages over again. Even after several times, I was still confused and decided to just keep reading. This issue goes back to Lee's word choice. I felt as if there was no clarity in how the characters viewed certain conflicts.

Reflection- Spoiler Alert!

I haven't had time to truly mull over my thoughts about this novel until today as I type this out. As I have been gathering my thoughts to write my review, rain has been trickling outside my window, and my dog has wedged himself next to me in a peaceful slumber. This tranquil time has lead me to an epiphany. Maybe Go Set a Watchman is not a terrible novel after all. The disappointment and frustration I felt after reading the novel was the same emotions Jean Louise felt when she found out Atticus is a part of the Ku Klux Clan. She had grown up and viewed Atticus as a god-like figure, one who never could make any mistakes or do anything bad. Without knowing it, so have the readers. Maybe this is what Harper Lee wanted. Perhaps she wanted this reaction out of her readers and make us feel the pain that Jean Louise felt when she finds out the truth.

There may be author's choices of Go Set a Watchman that I don't agree with, but the fact that Harper Lee was able to make the reader feel the pain that Jean Louise felt is down right genius. We should feel that pain every day in our society when we hear someone make a racial slur. We should feel that pain every day when we see someone mock another human being just because of the color of their skin. If we don't feel that pain, we can't progress as a society and this hatred in our world will continue.

© 2019 Jackie Zelko


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