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.
Southern Politics and Society Theme Icon

Much of the novel’s conflict is related to the 1954 Supreme Court decision “Brown v. Board of Education,” which declared state-sponsored segregation to be unconstitutional. This meant that all kinds of whites-only Southern institutions (like schools) suddenly had to include blacks, and many Southern whites resisted this change. These whites resented the federal government and Supreme Court imposing rules on them from the outside—an echo of one of the Civil War’s main causes—and reacted in a backlash against both the Court and the black citizens the Court was trying to help. Lee then shows how Brown v. Board of Education played out in a small Alabama town like Maycomb. There is no racial violence portrayed, but the white men form a “citizens’ council” to stand against integration, and the council meetings are full of racist hate-speech. In response Maycomb’s blacks become distrustful and afraid of the whites. This is most poignantly shown by how Calpurnia distances herself from Jean Louise, whom she raised like her own child. There is no real political action shown in the novel, but Southern politics play out in casual, everyday conversation, as with the women at Jean Louise’s “Coffee,” who discuss the “Communist” Supreme Court, how the NAACP wants to “destroy the South,” and make jokes about the stupidity of their black workers.

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman also involves lots of descriptions of society and daily life in a small Southern town. Lee relates the history of Maycomb County and gives backstories for many of the story’s characters. The town’s ugly, racist side always reveals itself in various ways, but Lee also spends lots of time describing more innocent subjects, like the unique personalities of Maycomb and the details of small-town life.

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Southern Politics and Society Quotes in Go Set a Watchman

Below you will find the important quotes in Go Set a Watchman related to the theme of Southern Politics and Society.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

Henry is not and never will be suitable for you. We Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash, which is exactly what Henry’s parents were when they were born and were all their lives. You can’t call them anything better. The only reason Henry’s like he is now is because your father took him in hand when he was a boy, and because the war came along and paid for his education. Fine a boy as he is, the trash won’t wash out of him.

Related Characters: Alexandra Finch (Aunt Alexandra) (speaker), Jean Louise Finch, Atticus Finch, Henry Clinton (Hank)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunt Alexandra (Atticus's sister), who takes care of Atticus, tells Jean-Louise about the possibilities of Jean-Louise's relationship with Henry "Hank" Clinton. Hank is plainly attracted to Jean-Louise, and vice versa, but Alexandra insists that he's not a suitable "match" for her. Alexandra goes on to explain that Hank, whatever his virtues as a person might be, is from a poor "white trash" family, and therefore can never make Jean-Louise happy in the ways she deserves.

If one compares go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, Aunt Alexandra is one of the most consistent characters. She's intolerant of people who are different from her, and looks down on those from a lower social class than hers. One could say that she's the embodiment of the old-fashioned Southern aristocratic snobbishness: she can't stand for her family to "breed" with commoners.


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Part 3, Chapter 8 Quotes

Mr. O’Hanlon was born and bred in the South, went to school there, married a Southern lady, lived all his life there, and his main interest today was to uphold the Southern Way of Life and no niggers and no Supreme Court was going to tell him or anybody else what to do… a race as hammer-headed as… essential inferiority… kinky woolly heads… still in the trees… greasy smelly… marry your daughters… mongrelize the race… mongrelize… save the South… back to Africa…
She heard her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.

Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker), Grady O’Hanlon (speaker), Jean Louise Finch
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

In this dramatic passage, Lee "outs" Atticus as a racist character, or at least a character who's willing to support openly racist people. Atticus has agreed to introduced a public speaker, Grady O'Hanlon, who makes a long, rambling speech in which he criticizes the Supreme Court's decision in "Brown v. the Board of Education," the decision usually credited with integrating schools, and therefore communities, in the South. Jean Louise is appalled as she listens to O'Hanlon, who goes on to then use racist slurs to attack African-Americans: she can't believe her good-hearted father, who'd defended the principle of equal rights in the past (as reflected in a quote we might recognize from To Kill a Mockingbird), could partner up with racists like O'Hanlon.

The passage is frightening and yet also interesting in the way it contrasts (or perhaps compares?) Atticus's previous commitment to equal rights with his current support for racist anti-integrationists. Atticus had supported equal rights for African-Americans in the past, or so Jean Louise believed, and yet here Lee shows us the insufficiency of Atticus's beliefs. It's not enough to say that blacks should be "equal," as Atticus has, because equality can theoretically coexist with segregation (hence "separate but equal," the guiding principle of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that strengthened segregation in the South fifty years before Brown). We also start to see one of the central conflicts of the novel, and of the tension between Lee's two novels, in this passage--how both Jean Louise and the reader of Mockingbird can reconcile the Citizens' Council Atticus of the present with the idealized, saintlike Atticus of the past.

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.

Part 4, Chapter 12 Quotes

Jean Louise sat in the car, staring at the steering wheel. Why is it that everything I have ever loved on this earth has gone away from me in two days’ time? Would Jem turn his back on me? She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks. She raised me, and she doesn’t care.
It was not always like this, I swear it wasn’t. People used to trust each other for some reason, I’ve forgotten why. They didn’t watch each other like hawks then. I wouldn’t get looks like that going up those steps ten years ago. She never wore her company manners with one of us… when Jem died, her precious Jem, it nearly killed her…

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem), Calpurnia
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Jean Louise has just visited Calpurnia, her former black maid and mother-figure, and has been hurt by Calpurnia's coldness and the distrustful looks of Calpurnia's family members. Here Jean Louise thinks about her dead brother, Jem, who--now that Atticus has been outed as a bigot--is Jean Louise's last remaining non-racist family member; her last connection to a childhood in which she was innocent of the pervasive racism of her community. By the same token, Jean Louise thinks about Calpurnia as she was (or seemed to be) in the past. Calpurnia took good care of Jean Louise when Jean Louise was a girl--but now, Calpurnia has turned cold and indifferent, as if she recognizes that Jean Louise and Atticus are just "white folks" now.

Jean Louise continues to hang onto an idyllic past, even as it becomes clear that such a past was never that idyllic to begin with. As a child, Jean Louise's world was as racist as it is now, if not more so, but because she was only a (white) child at the time, she was able to see it as a relatively innocent, happy place. As readers, we must therefore reexamine our perceptions of Mockingbird in light of these revelations--perhaps Scout wasn't as reliable a narrator as she seemed, and the events she related were idealized by the same kind of naïveté that affects Jean Louise's nostalgia here.

Part 5, Chapter 13 Quotes

“Jean Louise, nobody in Maycomb goes to see Negroes any more, not after what they’ve been doing to us. Besides being shiftless now they look at you sometimes with open insolence, and as far as depending on them goes, why that’s out.
“The NAACP’s come down here and filled ‘em with poison till it runs out of their ears… You do not realize what is going on. We’ve been good to ‘em, we’ve bailed ‘em out of jail and out of debt since the beginning of time, we’ve made work for ‘em when there was no work, we’ve encouraged ‘em to better themselves, they’ve gotten civilized, but my dear—that veneer of civilization’s so thin that a bunch of uppity Yankee Negroes can shatter a hundred years’ progress in five….”

Related Characters: Alexandra Finch (Aunt Alexandra) (speaker), Jean Louise Finch, Calpurnia
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jean Louise confronts Aunt Alexandra about the legacy of racism in the South and the new bigotry she's seen exposed throughout Maycomb (and even in her own family). To Jean Louise's surprise, Alexandra doesn't accept that the South has a continued problem with racism: on the contrary, she argues that white Southerners have taken every courtesy with black people, and yet the black community has responded ungratefully, with insolence and "uppity" behavior. As Alexandra sees it, blacks were given good jobs and opportunities, in return for which they were supposed to keep to themselves and be happy. Instead, blacks have vied for more rights and privileges, with the help of the "Yankee" NAACP.

Alexandra's view of history is, needless to say, incredibly racist and wrong. Blacks in the hundred years following the 13th Amendment were given horrible, low-paying jobs and housing opportunities, forbidden from voting, lynched, and generally treated like animals instead of human beings. Alexandra ignorantly claims that black people are being "uppity" when in reality they're just fighting for the same rights as everybody else.

Part 5, Chapter 14 Quotes

The South’s in its last agonizing birth pain. It’s bringing forth something new and I’m not sure I like it, but I won’t be here to see it. You will. Men like me and my brother are obsolete and we’ve got to go, but it’s a pity we’ll carry with us the meaningful things of this society—there were some good things in it.

Related Characters: Dr. John Hale Finch (Uncle Jack) (speaker), Jean Louise Finch, Atticus Finch
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jean Louise starts to rethink some of her ideas about Atticus. She meets with Atticus's brother, Uncle Jack, an intelligent, eccentric man. Uncle Jack argues to Jean Louise that Atticus and other opponents of integration aren't necessarily racist at all: they believe that black people should have equal rights, but they believe that integrating the schools and stores too quickly will result in crime and the collapse of the Southern way of life. Jack sums up his position by arguing that the old Southern culture wasn't perfect, but it also wasn't entire bad: and therefore, it shouldn't be entirely expunged, as many integrationists would like it to be. Jack's argument isn't entirely convincing (and it certainly doesn't convince Jean Louise), but it does at least help her see Atticus in less black and white terms--perhaps Atticus's beliefs, like his humanity, are more complicated than they appear.

Jean Louise, I want you to listen carefully. What we’ve talked about today—I want to tell you something and see if you can hook it all together. It’s this: what was incidental to the issue in our War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now, and is incidental to the issue in your own private war.

Related Characters: Dr. John Hale Finch (Uncle Jack) (speaker), Jean Louise Finch
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uncle Jack makes his most surprising argument--an argument that Lee seems to sympathize with in some ways, but not all. Uncle Jack argues that it's possible to oppose integration and not be a racist, just as it was possible to support the separation of the Southern states from the North (during the Civil War) without believing in slavery. The real issue, he claims is that of government control: Southerners didn't, and don't, want the federal government controlling their laws and economy, and therefore they fight for the right of self-determination. Racism, he claims, is "incidental" to the integration issue, which is really about the Supreme Court and states' rights.

Jack's point of view has some truth in it (it's true, certainly, that many of the opponents of integration considered themselves liberal, tolerant people, even as they defended the rights of the Southern states). And yet it's simply false for him to claim that racism is "incidental" to either the Civil War or the battle for integration. Indeed, many of the same people who defended "state rights" and "self-determination" were just using coded language to disguise their own bigotry: they claimed to be against federal control, not black people, when in fact they were just against the idea of black people being free and full citizens. Lee suggests that Uncle Jack is mostly sincere in his arguments, and yet she also implies that he's giving too much moral credit to the other opponents of "government control" in the South--for such high-minded political talk leaves out the real-world victims of this conflict: black people themselves. It's easy to argue for states' rights as divorced from racism when you aren't the one living in conditions of oppression, inequality, and fear.

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

“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.

“You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”
“You mean Atticus needs me?”
“Not altogether. I was thinking of Maycomb.”
“That’d be great, with me on one side and everybody else on the other. If life’s an endless flow of the kind of talk I heard this morning, I don’t think I’d exactly fit in.”
“That’s the one thing about here, the South, you’ve missed. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”
… “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”
“I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”

Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (speaker), Dr. John Hale Finch (Uncle Jack) (speaker), Atticus Finch
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uncle Jack tries to convince Jean Louise to stay in Maycomb. Jean Louise, disgusted with her father and her old community, has planned to leave her hometown as soon as she can to return to New York. Jack argues that Jean Louise should remain behind, or at least move back again later, despite the fact that she'll be in the minority for her political views. Jack claims that Jean Louise isn't as much of an outsider as she believes--there are others who agree with her about the importance of integration.

Ironically, Jack ends up seeming to take the more moral route than Jean Louise herself on this issue: where Jean Louise wants to run back to New York, allowing Maycomb to persist in its institutional racism, Jack encourages her to stay in Maycomb and interact with the racists in town, perhaps changing their beliefs in the process. She is white, and the daughter of a respected man in town, and so she should use her position of relative privilege to help the people she claims to be fighting for.