Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s novel to be published Tuesday, had its first chapter unveiled in The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian late last night. The novel, an early work depicting Scout Finch as an adult woman that was rewritten and published as To Kill a Mockingbird, represents something far more complicated than a continuation of a familiar story. Indeed, the first glimpse at the book’s contents indicated that all those who’ve been eagerly awaiting the follow-up to American classic To Kill a Mockingbird will have a mixed blessing on their hands, as a major Mockingbird character will not be a part of the action.
Jem Finch, one of the central characters of To Kill a Mockingbird, has died before the action of Go Set a Watchman. The published excerpt concerns Jean Louise Finch (formerly known as Scout) returning to visit her father Atticus in Maycomb, Ala.; after concerning itself for a while with one of Jem and Scout’s longtime friends, a man romantically pursuing Scout now, Lee’s third-person narrator blandly states, “Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day.” One of the most important relationships in To Kill a Mockingbird is now effectively over; fans of To Kill a Mockingbird who’ve been hoping to return to Maycomb for decades will not revisit one of its most sensitive and complex residents.
Such is life: Various other aspects of chapter 1, including an ominous focus on Atticus Finch’s declining health, indicate that the full text of Go Set a Watchman will present a significant challenge to those who turn to literature, in part, to spend time with characters they love. (That is to say: The vast majority of readers.) Gone, too, is Scout’s own voice; while To Kill a Mockingbird was narrated by a woman looking back at a scrappy girlhood, Go Set a Watchman gives us access to Scout’s thoughts from the third-person voice. It’ll take some getting used to. But if Go Set a Watchman were entirely more of the same, there’d be no reason for it to exist at all. Fans could just reread To Kill a Mockingbird, as, indeed, they’ve been doing for more than half a century.