By now, everybody’s probably heard some of the shocking plot twists in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: Jem Finch is dead, Atticus Finch is racist. Since almost every American knows To Kill a Mockingbird, these revelations hit hard. In the event that you refuse to personally purchase a book EW editor Tina Jordan calls “a petty cash grab,” we took a deep dive into the book’s major reveals.
Scout’s older brother and companion throughout To Kill a Mockingbird dropped dead a few years before the beginning of Watchman. The event is first mentioned off-handedly by the grown Jean Louise in Chapter 1, and then explained deeper in the novel. Jem died of a sudden heart attack at age 28. According to Jean Louise’s narration, he inherited a weak heart from their mother, who died the same way when the children were young (setting up the unique family situation that defines Mockingbird, with maid Calpurnia serving as Scout’s primary maternal figure).
Jem’s death has a clear purpose in the book: to make way for Henry Clinton, Atticus’ right-hand man and Jean Louise’s romantic interest during her annual two-week visit home. After Jem’s death, Atticus took Henry in as his new law apprentice, having known Henry from his childhood friendship with Scout and Jem (though Henry was apparently out of town during summers, perhaps explaining his absence from the events of Mockingbird).
Jem is gone but not forgotten in Watchman. Despite his untimely death, Jem has a large role in the novel’s many flashbacks, and remains a moral support for Jean Louise into the present. The confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus at the climax of the novel takes place outside Atticus’ law office, the exact spot where Jem died, giving it an additional emotional charge.
Jem’s death also allows him to remain untarnished by the racism and anti-Brown V. Board of Education hysteria that overtook the rest of Maycomb. Speaking of which…
Atticus is racist (and so is everybody else)
Is everything we grew up believing a lie? Jean Louise certainly seems to think so after catching Atticus and Henry (and most of the other “respectable” men of Maycomb) hosting a racist preacher at a “citizens’ council” meeting. When she confronts Henry about it later, he tells her that he and Atticus are both card-carrying members of the KKK.
The answer to whether these revelations ruin the character of Atticus Finch (who has spent decades as one of American pop culture’s moral icons) depends on your perspective. Atticus is clearly racist; he uses derogatory terms and tells Jean Louise that black people “are still in their childhood as a people.” He explains his membership in the KKK as a way keeping tabs on people, and his leadership of the Maycomb citizens’ council stems from his ardent support for states’ rights and distrust of the federal government. His arguments with a furious Jean Louise are hypocritical and self-evidently wrong, but they are a more accurate depiction of the views of many white Americans of the time. Atticus is portrayed as an honorable, disciplined man, but not a perfect one.
Watchman does not simply tear down the Atticus Finch you know and love. Like Mockingbird, Watchman is about the loss of innocence. But rather than focusing on the innocence lost in the transition from childhood to maturity, Watchman’s subject is how that innocence disappears when you return to the scene of your childhood after spending time away. Atticus was always this way, but Jean Louise only sees it now because she’s spent time living on her own in New York. He’s still an honorable, disciplined man, but he’s not perfect. None of our parents are. The task of adulthood, after all, is learning what to take from your parents and what to reject.
This is why Atticus ultimately reacts to Jean Louise’s fury at him with nothing but pride – their disagreement shows that Jean Louise has finally become her own woman, with her own opinions. She’s no longer repeating everything her father says as gospel. The adults around her emphasize the importance of this growth and independence.
Although Jean Louise returns to New York at the end of the novel, she is not leaving Maycomb behind forever, as she is almost did. Both Atticus and his brother, Jean Louise’s beloved Uncle Jack, mean well, but they can’t shake the racist beliefs they were raised with. It’s up to Jean Louise and her generation, they note, to help change Maycomb for the better, not to run at the first sign of prejudice.
Calpurnia rejects Jean Louise
Calpurnia has since retired from the Finches’ service, and now lives with her children and grandchildren. The events of Watchman are set in motion when one of Calpurnia’s grandchildren accidentally crashes into an old white resident of Maycomb, killing him. Atticus tells Henry and Jean Louise he will take the case, but unlike the iconic Tom Robinson case from Mockingbird, it’s not for altruistic reasons: Atticus simply wants to stop the NAACP from getting involved. Shocked, Jean Louise takes it upon herself to visit Calpurnia. In an emotional moment, the woman who raised Scout reacts to her with sadness and indifference. Finally coming to grips with the realities of Jean Louise says, “Tell me one thing, Cal, just one thing before I go – please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?” After a long moment of silence, Calpurnia shakes her head. Unfortunately, neither Calpurnia nor any of Maycomb’s other black characters appear again after this powerful moment.