Go Set a Watchman

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Themes and Colors
Disillusionment Theme Icon
Racism and Bigotry Theme Icon
Home and Belonging Theme Icon
Conscience and Principles Theme Icon
Southern Politics and Society Theme Icon
Mockingbird and Watchman Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Go Set a Watchman, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Conscience and Principles Theme Icon

The title of the book comes from a Bible verse read during a sermon at Jean Louise’s church: “Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Uncle Jack then links the concept of “the watchman” to one’s conscience: the idea of someone’s innate knowledge of right and wrong, separate from society’s influence. Jean Louise has always considered Atticus to be her moral compass, and the very definition of a “gentleman”—someone who is honorable, brave, polite, and kind—so when she becomes disillusioned with him she feels hopelessly lost. She then must try to find her own conscience and principles outside of Atticus, and “set a watchman” within herself.

Jean Louise instinctively knows that Atticus, Hank, and the townspeople’s stance on integration is morally wrong. Atticus has instilled strong principles in Jean Louise, strong enough to stand even when Atticus himself falls short of them. One of Jean Louise’s important conflicts, then, is to reconcile her own conscience with her love for her family and friends. Ultimately she does find this possible, and though she “can’t beat them, and can’t join them,” she can continue to love them even while considering them to be morally wrong.

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Conscience and Principles Quotes in Go Set a Watchman

Below you will find the important quotes in Go Set a Watchman related to the theme of Conscience and Principles.
Part 3, Chapter 8 Quotes

Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.

Related Characters: Atticus Finch
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, we learn that years before the action of the novel, Atticus defended a black man from rape charges, resulting in a rare acquittal for a person of color (the "skeleton" of the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, but with a crucial change--in Mockingbird Tom Robinson is still condemned, despite his obvious innocence, yet in Watchman Atticus wins an acquittal).

Atticus has defended African-Americans before, and done such a good job of defending them that he's freed them from prison and execution. How is it possible, Jean Louise wonders, that Atticus could be so helpful to certain members of the black community and yet also enable anti-integrationists like O'Hanlon? Atticus is an honorable character, but he seems to subscribe to a kind of libertarianism, in which government shouldn't be allowed to integrate Southern communities without those communities' consent. Thus, Atticus defends black people in court and yet allows the white community to keep the same black people out of their schools and restaurants.


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She felt herself turning green with nausea, and she put her head down; try as she might she could not think, she only knew, and what she knew was this:
The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lee sums up everything that's happened to Jean Louise during the chapter. She's learned that Atticus, her beloved father, is an enabler and supporter of racists: he defends and introduces racist speakers who encourage their audiences to think in bigoted terms and demonize the black community. Furthermore, Atticus is a top member of a "Citizens' Council" designed to oppose racial integration. Jean Louise feels a physical revulsion with her father for "betraying her" so publicly: Atticus had always seemed like a very decent, moral person--in fact, Jean Louise's idol and moral standard--and now he's partnering with some of the most immoral people in the country.

Jean Louise's revulsion is fascinating because--due to the circumstances of Go Set a Watchman's publishing, in a way that Lee (seemingly) didn't plan--it's also our revulsion. Atticus Finch is one of the most beloved characters in American literature--the character who launched a thousand legal careers, and inspired millions to find a beacon of justice and morality even in the Jim Crow South. Here, however, we learn that Atticus has turned out to be a bigot, and may have been a bigot all along--that's pretty revolting.

Part 3, Chapter 9 Quotes

She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshipped him.

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch, Atticus Finch
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jean Louise continues to ruminate on her father's late "betrayal" of all the values he had previously seemed to stand for. Her crisis isn't just one of disillusionment with someone she considered moral--it's a crisis of her own sense of self, and her own moral standards. Jean Louise hadn't realized that her conscience was always based in her perceptions of Atticus's morality. But now that Atticus himself has undercut his own morals, what does Jean Louise have to stand on? She must learn to build her own principles apart from those supposedly embodied in her father's person.

Jean Louise's crisis also reflects our own as readers: like Jean-Louise, many of Lee's readers grew up worshipping Atticus, asking "what would Atticus do?", etc. Now that we've learned that Atticus (at least as he appears in Watchman) isn't as virtuous as he seemed, we're forced to make a choice. The passage is largely about the difference between idealized heroes and real, breathing human beings. Perhaps it's always dangerous to worship human beings as demigods--because in the end, they'll always do something disappointing.

Part 5, Chapter 13 Quotes

She answered: please believe me, what has happened in my family is not what you think. I can say only this—that everything I learned about human decency I learned here. I learned nothing from you except how to be suspicious.

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Jean Louise confronts one of the strangest paradoxes on Southern culture: Southern culture is based on civility and politeness to an extent seen nowhere else in America (certainly not in New York, where Jean Louise lives now!). And yet Jean Louise knows that Southern culture is also founded on the exploitation of African-Americans: their dehumanizing labor, their inability to vote or go to school, etc. In other words, Jean Louise can't entirely give up on the South; she recognizes that Southern culture and her Southern family taught her how to be a decent person, and she addresses New York here as it's own entity, saying it only ever taught her "how to be suspicious." It's Jean Louise's inability to give up on the South altogether that makes her experience in the novel so agonizing: she loves the South deeply and yet also recognizes that it's a racist place.

Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces. Stone blind… Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday. He should have provided me with one… I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker), Atticus Finch, Mr. Stone
Page Number: 181-182
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Jean Louise sums up some of her conflicted feelings about the Southern way of life and her father. Jean Louise realizes that she grew up in something of a dreamworld; she believed that Atticus and Maycomb were one way, when it heart they were something different.

The passage also brings up the notion of a "watchman" (in a rather awkward connection--"stone blind" to "Mr. Stone"--from the young writer Lee), a symbolic figure who can see the future and stand for something permanent, potentially saving Jean Louise from disillusionment by warning her and reinforcing her own principles. The watchman could restore order in Jean Louie's world by telling Maycomb, Jean Louise's town, that it shouldn't have "played a joke" on Jean Louise (i.e., it shouldn't have deluded Jean Louise into thinking it was a fair, equitable place). Of course, there is no such watchman figure in the real world--without Atticus to guide her, Jean Louise feels all alone.

Part 6, Chapter 16 Quotes

“I’m only trying to make you see beyond men’s acts to their motives. A man can appear to be a part of something not-so-good on its face, but don’t take it upon yourself to judge him unless you know his motives as well…”
Jean Louise said, “Are you saying go along with the crowd and then when the time comes—”
Henry checked her: “Look, honey. Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?”

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker), Henry Clinton (Hank) (speaker)
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jean Louise has a long conversation with Hank in which Hank seems to defend some of the same ideas that Uncle Jack and Atticus have put forward recently. When Jean Louise tries to argue that the KKK is an inherently racist organization, and that the opponents of integration are inherently racist, Hank disagrees. He claims that may of the people in the KKK, including Atticus (a former member, we learn!), simply believe that the Southern states should be allowed to defend their own rights and determine their own laws, instead of submitting to federal orders. Jean Louise is furious with Hank for arguing on behalf of the KKK: Hank seems to be saying that it's sometimes necessary to align with racist organizations like the KKK in order to enact one's own non-racist ideas. Thus, Atticus joined the KKK not because he hated black people but because he wanted to protect Southern communities and the "Southern way of life."

To say Hank's logic is flawed would be an understatement, however. If the people in power--white Southern men--won't call out their peers for racism, then who will be able to effect change? Hank is essentially saying that the ends justify the means, and he doesn't realize that "temporarily" espousing racist ideas or supporting racist groups isn't really possible--racism isn't just people in white hoods, but is also part of social institutions and political philosophies, even those as seemingly high-minded as self-determination. It's naive to think that one can join the KKK in order to further one's own non-racist ideas, and then expect the policies that result to not be tainted by some kind of racism or inequality. Furthermore, the rather condescending way Hank frames his arguments ("look, honey") doesn't especially endear him to readers.

Part 6, Chapter 17 Quotes

“Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?”
“…Of course I know that, but I heard something once. I heard a slogan and it stuck in my head. I heard ‘Equal rights for all; special privileges for none,’ and to me it didn’t mean anything but what it said. It didn’t mean one card off the top of the stack for the white man and one off the bottom for the Negro, it—”

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Jean Louise finally confronts Atticus about his racist beliefs, and Atticus responds by insisting that he's not a racist at all. He loves black people, but doesn't believe that black people are ready for the responsibilities of American citizens: he doesn't believe that they can be trusted to vote responsibly, attend schools at the level of white children, etc. In short, Atticus is sure that mixing black and white culture will simply dirty white culture, creating social chaos. The only way to maintain order in the South is to keep blacks and whites separate. Jean Louise responds by citing something Atticus told her long ago: "Equal rights for all; special privileges for none" (a famous quote from Tom Robinson's trial in Mockingbird). Jean Louise clearly believes that Atticus, in his loyalty to Southern culture, is evading his own moral philosophy.

The scene is really the climax of the book, because it shows the dialogue that took place between the North and the South in the 1950s and 60s. Atticus, representing the position of the educated, supposedly non-racist Southerner, argues that it's possible for two communities to be separate but equal--while Jean Louise insists that such a point of view is racist. Atticus seems to be sincere in his arguments (i.e., he's not just using "separate but equal" as a strategy to hide his secret hatred for black people), and yet his willingness to think of the black community as "backward" betrays his bigotry. The great conflict for Jean Louise, and for readers of both Mockingbird and Watchman, is how to accept that such bigotry can live alongside such strong moral principles within one man.

“Atticus, the NAACP hasn’t done half of what I’ve seen in the past two days. It’s us.”
“Yes sir, us. You. Has anybody, in all the wrangling and high words over states’ rights and what kind of government we should have, thought about helping the Negroes?”

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jean Louise makes an argument about the flaws in the Southern anti-integrationist point of view. Atticus claims that the black community simply isn't "ready" to be integrated with the white community, and that the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. the Board of Education will throw the South into chaos--therefore, the South should wait until a future time when the black community is "ready." Jean Louise responds by pointing out that, in focusing so particularly on the Supreme Court and states' rights, the Southern anti-integrationists have neglected the real-world people actually affected by such political wrangling: the entire Southern black community.

In other words, Southerners have claimed that they want the black community to prepare itself for integration--just not today. In the meantime, supposedly, black people are supposed to be "grateful" for the rights and liberties they already have, and not get too "uppity." Such a point of view, Jean Louise argues, is extremely disingenuous, as evidenced by the fact that Southerners who oppose integration seem to have no interest whatsoever in actually helping black people (i..e, preparing them for integration at some point in the future). As readers, we might also add that integration wasn't some kind of "favor" to the black community, or a privilege they weren't ready for yet--it was merely the undoing of racist policies that never should have been there in the first place.

“Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
“They’re people, aren’t they? We were quite willing to import them when they made money for us.”
“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”
“The scholastic level of that school down the street, Atticus, couldn’t be any lower and you know it. They’re entitled to the same opportunities anyone else has, they’re entitled to the same chance—”

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 245-246
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, one of the most frequently cited in reviews of the novel, Atticus Finch continues to argue with his daughter, Jean Louise. He claims that the integration of Southern society, while technically "just," will never work in the real world: it would be chaotic to have "carloads" of black people sent into white schools and churches. Jean Louise responds by claiming that black people should be allowed to go to white schools and churches--they're human beings, and deserve equal treatment.

Atticus's argument against integration betrays his racism. He speaks of black people as if they're a swarm of scary invaders--a big, unruly mob without any individual characteristics. Although Atticus claims that his real concern is the quality of education in Southern schools (i..e, black students will drive down the quality of learning), his language suggests a more visceral disgust with black people themselves. Atticus's argument isn't totally invalid (it's not unreasonable to think about the effects of integration on the quality of education), but his wording suggests that he's motivated by racism as much as an abstract commitment to learning or Southern society.

“How they’re as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they’re human. I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week’s decency.
“There was no point in saying any of this because I know you won’t give an inch and you never will. You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible, but don’t let it worry you, because the joke is entirely on me. You’re the only person I think I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for.”

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker), Atticus Finch
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jean Louise's attacks on Atticus become personal, not ideological. She's angry with Atticus for contradicting his principles of equality and humanity, and yet she's also furious with him simply because he seems to have lied to her. Jean Louise turns Atticus's argument on his head. Atticus has claimed that the black community's high rates of crime and low literacy are proof that it's not ready for integration with white America. Jean Louise counters by claiming that the black community's relatively high literacy rates are proof that it's capable of surviving and thriving even with the hatred an systematic oppression of the white community pushing it down. Therefore, integration will improve the black community immeasurably: African-Americans are ready, and always have been.

Jean Louise doesn't stop here, though. She tells Atticus that she's done arguing: she can't stand being around him any longer, given how bigoted he's become (and perhaps always was). It's not clear if Lee agrees with Jean Louise's actions completely: Jean Louise is standing by the principles Atticus himself instilled in her, and yet she's also choosing to run away and cut ties with her family and hometown instead of working to change them.

Part 7, Chapter 18 Quotes

Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious… now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.

Related Characters: Dr. John Hale Finch (Uncle Jack) (speaker), Jean Louise Finch, Atticus Finch
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel reaches an ending, Jean Louise returns to Uncle Jack, and they have a long conversation about individual responsibility and conscience. Jean Louis realizes that her mistake was to trust that Atticus was a kind of god, perfect in every way. Because Jean Louise based her notions of right and wrong entirely around Atticus, she was inevitably going to be crushed when Atticus did something wrong. She's better off figuring out the truth for herself: constructing her own principles apart from Atticus's person, and deciding for herself what to believe about the black community and integration.

Uncle Jack might not agree with Jean Louise, but he doesn't try to sway her to his side too much. Instead, he allows her to believe whatever she wants to believe, rather than leaning on anybody else. In his politics as well as his personal interactions, Uncle Jack could be termed a kind of "libertarian"--he seems to believe that the black community should be allowed to thrive, but on its own, and by the same token, he seems to think that Jean Louise needs to figure out for herself what to believe, rather than trading ideas with anybody else, including her own father. At the same time, Uncle Jack is also a kind of "ivory tower" figure, making high-minded arguments and subtle points that are technically correct, but that ignore real-world injustices and suffering.

“You’re color blind, Jean Louise,” he said. “You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people.”

Related Characters: Dr. John Hale Finch (Uncle Jack) (speaker), Jean Louise Finch
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uncle Jack continues to offer Jean Louise his theories of race and racism. He describes Jean Louise as "color blind"--she's been raised to believe in equality for all human beings; therefore, she doesn't really think of black people as being any different than white people (a rather far-fetched claim, but Jean Louise is at least certainly less racially-obsessed than most of the white people around her).

Uncle Jack's point seems to be that Jean Louise is unwilling to acknowledge any differences between the black and white communities, despite the fact that measuring such differences is essential to evaluating the success of integration. The passage again shows Uncle Jack making an important point while also being somewhat unrealistic in his arguments. For Jean Louise isn't totally "color blind" at all: she admits that she would never want to marry a black man. So even Jean Louise, the liberal progressive, can't entirely commit herself to the idea that black and white people should be treated the same, or have the same value (even if that's just value as a romantic partner)--for all her morality and principles, Jean Louise is still a product of her Southern upbringing and white privilege.

Part 7, Chapter 19 Quotes

“You may be sorry, but I’m proud of you.”
She looked up and saw her father beaming at her…
“Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right—stand up to me first of all.”

Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker), Jean Louise Finch
Page Number: 277
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Atticus and Jean Louise come to an uneasy truce. Jean Louise continues to disagree with Atticus for his political views--views which she considers to be racist--and yet Atticus is proud of Jean Louise because she had the courage to stand up to him. Atticus, for all his racism, continues to celebrate individual responsibility and strong moral principles, to the point where he not only tolerates but celebrates those who disagree with his ideas.

In an ironic twist, Atticus, the racist segregationist, seems more accepting of differing points of view than Jean Louise, the liberal integrationist (even if his acceptance doesn't extend much beyond his own family here). By the same token, Jean Louise finally seems to accept Atticus as the human father-figure he is: flawed in his beliefs, yet still worthy of her respect and love. She hasn't lost her home (which includes both Maycomb and Atticus himself) after all--she's just seen the ugly truth about it, and must now work to change it because she loves it.