Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman Themes

Permanence and Ephemerality

Go Set a Watchman explores the permanence and ephemerality of memories and the world around an individual. Jean Louise is unable to fully accept that the Maycomb she knew has changed, and even less able to accept that the views and ideologies of those she loves, like her father, have changed too.

When yelling at Atticus, she says, “There was no point in saying any of this because I know you won’t give an inch and you never will” (252), recognizing that for most people, ideology stays with them. She discovers this at the coffee party held just earlier that afternoon with the shallow ladies of Maycomb. Despite the permanence of beliefs—and they often are permanent, as Jean Louise acknowledges how she is like a “stone”—ephemerality and perspective from her other loved ones aid Jean Louise in accepting seemingly irreconcilable perspectives.

Lastly, although Jean Louise’s love for her family and for Henry stay stone solid, she realizes that, concerning the former, she will never agree with them on racial equality, and, concerning the latter, she can never actually marry him.

Memory and the Past

Slightly different from discussions on permanence and ephemerality—but highly related to—are discussions concerning memories and the past. Memories can be defined as perceptions of past events, and although the story is told in the third person, all memories and even current events are told from the highly colored, highly subjective point of view of Jean Louise. Memories and past events are incredibly important to understanding the story because the entire main tension deals with Jean Louise trying to reconcile her past perceptions of Atticus with her present knowledge of him.

She also has frequent flashbacks in the story which seem like tangential anecdotes, but inform the rest of the story. For example, after dreaming about Calpurnia (138), she then goes to visit the older woman. Thus, the second, real-time experience is shaded with Jean Louise’s memories of Calpurnia (and Jean Louise actually recalls a second memory of Calpurnia during Jem’s death at the end of meeting with her old servant).

Lastly, Uncle Jack’s arguments and explanations to Jean Louise often invoke history. His invocations of history are obviously told from the perspective of the American South, and a reminder that wars and history are framed by the victors. Therefore, Uncle Jack’s stories put more prominence on the nobility of fighting for state’s rights back during the War.

Law and Morality

Atticus’s profession as a lawyer requires him to work with words and written letters as much as it requires him to work with ideas of what is right and what is wrong. The idea of legality in conflict with morality is another tension throughout the book; if Atticus represents the law, which is supposedly right, how then can Jean Louise feel so appalled by and opposed to Atticus’s way of thinking? In a flashback, she recalls complaining that the high school principal thought putting words down on paper made them legal and believable (218). However, the issues of “believability” and “morality” are not necessarily aligned, just like writing down words does not make them right. Jean Louise never writes down any of her beliefs, but says them, still using words. In a way, this is actually better for her since she is able to let the hurtful words she says to her family fade away into the past and into memory, after she realizes her error.

Individuality and Identity

Throughout the entire story, Jean Louise is undergoing a tough time because she is actually transitioning into a new person—her own, individual person. Uncle Jack emphasizes this to her (196), and Jean Louise herself recognizes that she has worshipped Atticus for the longest time. It is this worship of Atticus which makes her transition so difficult because it is against her heroic, knowledgeable father that she is rubbing. However, Jean Louise matures through this experience, even realizing that she cannot marry Henry only to lose her sense of identity (227).

Racial and Class Consciousness

In Maycomb, race relations are tense and unfortunate, but so are unequal socioeconomic relations. Residents frequently call each other “trash” in order to demote others and make themselves feel slightly higher. This is mirrored in the way the n-word for blacks was first derived, and how it meant “trash.” Aunt Alexandra calls Henry trash because of his family history, despite his being the most respectable young man in Maycomb at the present time of the story. Furthermore, many whites in Maycomb use the presence of the black population to feel better than them, since they are all conscious of the idea of being “red-necked white trash.” This difficult balance of self-esteem issues and national laws not being executed consistently across America have rendered a precarious social situation in Maycomb.

Gender Roles and Perspective

Social class and racial relations are not the only sources of inequality; gender roles, too, limit women in the mid-1900s. Throughout the story, Jean Louise proclaims that she is “unable to understand men” and probably never will; her fierce independence and lack of traditional ladylike tendencies puts her at odds with the rest of her town and particularly her aunt. Despite her tomboy nature, Henry still falls in love with her, and in his love, attempts to pigeonhole her and stifle her sense of pride and individuality. The idea that he cannot really see through to her either, the same way Jean Louise proclaims she cannot understand men, is reflective of the larger theme in the book of perspective: that is, the need for empathy, for understanding the world from other people’s perspectives. For example, Jean Louise cannot fully understand Calpurnia’s perspective, or even Henry’s, or especially Atticus’s, but she must make the conscious effort to reconcile these perspectives in her heart and in her life. Even though, like her uncle said, each man’s conscience is his own watchman, and therefore the watchman sees only what the individual wants to see, love brings people together to complete gaps in the perspectives puzzle.

Hope and Disillusionment

Jean Louise accuses Atticus of denying the black population any hope of ever improving (251). The idea of hope, and the ability to continue going forward, is actually just as important to Jean Louise, who is almost stopped in her figurative tracks when she finds out that she and Atticus do not see eye to eye. Jean Louise is hopelessly disillusioned; in some ways the book is almost like a very late coming-of-age novel, or at least a coming-to-self novel. In overcoming her disillusionment, Jean Louise finds new hope as she is ready to accept and understand the perspectives of others. It is also hope which gets Jean Louise through this difficult hump of disillusionment—she continues to push herself to understand what is “going on,” or “what has happened,” as she says to Uncle Jack.