What are the themes in Go Set A Watchman?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A theme is the author’s message.  Go Get a Watchman is the story of a young woman who returns to the town where she grew up to find some of the myths of her childhood shattered.

We build our parents into heroes, making them larger than life.

This is one of the biggest themes of the book, and something all lovers of the book To Kill a Mockingbird should remember when reading this novel.  Everyone has flaws.  Children tend to make their parents into icons, putting them up on pedestals they can’t possibly balance on into adulthood.

Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb, and finds that her memory of her father does not match up to watch she sees.  She remembers a paragon of civil rights, and she sees a man who attends segregation meetings with the rest of the town.  The realization makes her physically ill.  Uncle Jack explains to Jean Louise why this affects her so.

As you grew, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings … he makes so few mistakes, but he makes them like all of us. (Ch. 18, p. 265)

There are many explanations for why Atticus attends the meetings, from Atticus, Jack, and Jean’s boyfriend, Henry, who claims that attending the meetings is part of keeping up appearances.  We also hear that he was there to see who else was there, and that he was there because not being there would make him stand out.  Jean Louise accepts none of these reasons.  She refuses to allow her father to attend any segregationist meetings.  She still loves him, clearly, but there is a wall between them now.

You can never go home again.

This theme is usually phrased this way, somewhat idiomatically or poetically.  It means that every time you return home to your childhood home after you are older, things will be different.  You are different, for one thing, and things will have changed.  Lee demonstrates this with several flashbacks to “Scout’s” youth, showing us that Jean Louise is still trying to grow up, and come to terms with what has happened to her home.  One of the most drastic changes for “Scout” is that her childhood home is now an ice cream parlor! 

She blinked hard.  I’m losing my mind, she thought. … The square, squat modern ice cream shop where her old home had been was open, and a man was peering out the window at her. (Ch. 8, p. 112)

This is very symbolic.  Ice cream usually symbolizes childhood and innocence, yet when Jean Louise goes to get the ice cream, she can’t even keep it down because she is so disgusted from how her town, and mostly her father, has changed.  Her idyllic childhood has been tarnished beyond recognition.

There are other ways that the town has changed, of course.  She is an adult now, and the world has changed (besides the bright colors of the houses after World War II).  Some friends, like Dill, did not return from the war.  Most girls she went to school with are getting married.  Segregation is a hot button issue in the town, because while racism could always remain completely noncontroversial before, “outsiders” like the NAACP (and likely other groups) have brought it to the surface.  Jean Louise is even more of an outsider than before.  Coming of age has now turned to grown-up reality.

The responsibilities of adult life have to be taken on at some point.

This is really the over-riding theme of the book.  Jean Louise is faced first with the crushing reality that her father is old and frail.  He has a debilitating physical illness that goes far beyond weakness in his eyes and a little tiredness.  He can barely feed himself.  Her brother simply dropped dead of a heart attack one day, and she is still clearly not over that grief. 

One of the biggest hurdles for Jean Louise in being ushered into the adult world is understanding that you can’t change people.  They will believe what they will believe.  Jean Louise has sophisticated viewpoints on segregation and Civil Rights for the period, but they are far beyond Maycomb’s understanding.  She realizes that she cannot marry Henry because, whatever he may feel about African Americans, he does not understand them the way she does.

Had she insight, could she have perceived the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind. (Ch. 10, p. 122)

This “defect” makes it almost impossible for Jean Louise to fit into Maycomb society without judging.  It is the reason she detests Henry, and grows to resent her father.  If she is to return to her childhood home and become the good wife and daughter, she will have to become something she is not.  She will have to live a lie. 

Go Set a Watchman is a bizarre rabbithole of a story in some ways, but a unique insight into Jean Louise as an adult in other ways.  It depicts Maycomb’s transition from a comfortable segregationists lifestyle to a time period where it is about to be challenged.  The Civil Rights movement has not hit Maycomb yet full blast, but we see the stirrings of it.  Eventually, Jean Louise will not be the minority opinion on this issue.  Chances are, more people feel like Henry, and are sympathetic to the cause but not ready to stick their necks out.   All they need is for the tide of public opinion to shift, which will never be easy for Maycomb because it is so set in its ways.

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