Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_51A6rmAqknL._AA160_Anyone who looks at the two books side by side (which probably means every reader) will be shocked and surprised by the changes to and differences from what we have always been familiar with. We have to remember that GSAW was written first, and that Harper Lee was sent away by her editor to rewrite it. And we need also to remember that TKAM is set in the 1930s, whilst GSAW is set in the early 1950s. Finally, it does no harm to recall that the time of the writing of GSAW – the first novel – was much closer to the time when the novel is set, and the complex racial politics of the US at the time. Nowadays those political arguments are remote, perhaps half incomprehensible: what informed the editor’s reaction to GSAW all those years ago?

I remember (and perhaps some of my readers may, too), a GCSE oral coursework task that I occasionally set, which involved a hot-seating monologue about a chosen character from TKAM twenty years after the events of the novel. Varied and interesting as the students’ performances were, none approached the power of GSAW’s arguments.

Congenital heart disease kills Scout’s mother in both novels; it explains the non-appearance of Jem in GSAW. Sexual abuse and incest, only alluded to in TKAM in Mayella Ewell’s courtroom testimony, is clearer and plainer in GSAW. Both Scout and Jean Louise visit the negro quarters; the encounter with Cal in the 1950s is far harder and more upsetting in the 1950s context. The disapproving Aunt Alexandra is there, as is the mad Cousin Joshua; the isolation of Maycomb and the strange history of the county is there, almost unchanged; missionary teas happen in both novels, though much more carefully choreographed and bitingly satirised in TKAM.

The visit to the black community’s church is a powerful episode in TKAM: the white church service in GSAW falls rather flat; there is a flashback to Atticus’ successful defence of a black man accused of rape by a white woman during the children’s childhood in GSAW; the courthouse scenes are obviously right at the heart of TKAM, whereas the courthouse is the focus of a racist gathering, Atticus’ attendance at which triggers the explosions that shape the conclusion of GSAW. Epsiodes from the children’s lives (Jem, Scout, Dill) figure in both novels.

The focus is different: GSAW is Jean Louise’s novel, whereas TKAM belongs to a whole raft of characters, shifting subtly as we get inside the skin of so many of the characters.

Both books are, in their different ways, about growing up, the loss of innocence; I found myself initially judging that this is less skilfully done in GSAW, but then I was less sure. It’s done very differently, to be sure, and perhaps the young Scout’s adventures in TKAM are cosier and more endearing, less challenging and threatening than those undergone by an adult. Certainly GSAW is much bleaker: Jean Louise has lost Cal, and fears she has lost her father and the rest of her family, too.

In the end, I did feel that GSAW is a much cruder novel, and I can see why an editor would have said ‘go away and do a lot more work on this book’. The initial set-up is rather bald: Jean Louise the outsider returns home to be shocked by how racist her home town seems to be. There’s a great deal of preachiness about the racial problems of the 1950s, and at times I felt the novel slipped into didacticism. And yet, I can accept that this may have come from Harper Lee’s genuine love of the Deep South as her home, and a picture of it very different from the rest of the US which was still, a century after the Cival War, trying to impose its values and methods on the region. Special pleading? But certainly an editor might judge it a barrier to its success as a novel. The more romanticised picture which emerges in TKAM certainly guaranteed success.

My perspective is also probably different from others’: having taught TKAM so many times in my career, I feel I know it like the back of my hand. And GSAW is both a fascinating insight, and thought-provoking complement to its – much better – successor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: