Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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Chapter 1 Summary

Jean Louise Finch, twenty-six years old, travels by train from New York City to Maycomb, Alabama, the small town where she grew up with her brother and her father. Her brother, Jem, died two years before the novel begins. Her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, now seventy-two, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Atticus, however, refuses to let the disease defeat him. With the help of Henry “Hank” Clinton, his young protégé and Jean Louise’s lifelong friend, Atticus continues to practice law. Jean Louise goes home once a year, and during one of her two-week visits in Maycomb, Hank had fallen in love with her.

Jean Louise has breakfast in the dining car and watches the landscape roll by. As the train crosses the Chattahoochee River into Alabama, she reflects on the founding of Maycomb, the origins of the Finch family in Maycomb County, and the peculiar history of a “long-departed” Finch cousin, Joshua Singleton St. Clair. An eccentric poet whose verse is indecipherable, Joshua is revered by Jean Louise’s Aunt Alexandra, despite his having attempted to shoot a university president and thereafter being “placed in state accommodations for the irresponsible.”

Hank meets Jean Louise’s train at Maycomb Junction. A World War II veteran and law school graduate, Hank has worked hard to succeed in life after being abandoned by his father and essentially orphaned at age fourteen when his mother died. Thirty years old and established in a law practice with Atticus, he now can support a wife, and he wants Jean Louise to marry him. Greeting her at the train, Hank enfolds her in a bear hug, kisses her twice, collects her suitcase, and escorts her to his car.

On the drive into town, Hank and Jean Louise fall into familiar, affectionate bantering. The conversation then becomes serious when he formally proposes marriage and presses her for a commitment. Jean Louise, however, will not entertain the idea of marrying him; she makes light of it and tries to change the subject. She knows she is not in love with Hank, and rather than consign him—and herself—to a marriage that surely would fail, she chooses instead to “pursue the stony path of spinsterhood.” Hank is vexed by her attitude and behavior. Truly sorry that she has made him unhappy, Jean Louise apologizes for being “hateful.” Hank forgives her, and they resume their teasing—“friends again.”

 

Chapter 2 Summary

Atticus and his sister, Alexandra, wait at Atticus’s house for Hank and Jean Louise to arrive. His hands crippled with the arthritis that plagues him, Atticus can’t hold the book he is reading—The Strange Case of Alger Hiss. He has placed it on a music stand before him and peruses the text with indignation. Written by a leading member of Britain’s Labour party and published in 1953, the book defends Hiss, an official of the American government accused in 1948 of spying for the Soviet Union. Alexandra, who moved in with Atticus after he became disabled with arthritis, considers the book inconsequential because she has never heard of the author.

After Hank and Jean Louise arrive and she has embraced her father, she inquires about his health. She then asks for news about Maycomb, learning that Edgar Finch’s son has met an untimely death at college. At the mention of Edgar’s name, Jean Louise teases Alexandra about his “courting” Alexandra for eleven years without proposing marriage. Atticus and Jean Louise then discuss the Merriweathers, wed forty-two years, who are divorcing.

Alexandra suddenly interrupts to criticize Jean Louise’s casual attire, beginning another skirmish in their “Hundred Years’ War” over the way she chooses to dress. When Jean Louise argues with Alexandra, Atticus intervenes. “That’ll do, Scout,” he says, unconsciously using his nickname for her when she was a child. Jean Louise apologizes to her aunt, Alexandra goes to make coffee, and the conversation in the living room continues with Hank observing as Jean Louise teases her...

(The entire section is 9,306 words.)