It is sometime a little after 1954. The twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch takes the train from New York (where she has been living and working as an artist) to visit her family and hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. She usually makes this journey by plane, but has decided to go by train for this visit, and she is pleased with her decision, as she likes trains and gets to admire the countryside. She doesn’t want her father Atticus, who is seventy-two, to have to drive all the way to the airport in Mobile either. Jean Louise gets briefly trapped inside her compartment’s fold-up bed, but a porter helps her out.
The opening of the book immediately introduces a different tone and setting from To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s famous novel that was actually a rewrite of Go Set a Watchman. The well-known characters from Mockingbird are much older now—Scout goes by “Jean Louise” and is living in New York, while Atticus is an old man. The setting isn’t limited to Maycomb anymore either, but begins by stretching from the North of America to the South.
The train crosses the Chatahoochee River into Alabama, and Jean Louise thinks about her family. She remembers the story of her relative Cousin Joshua Singleton St. Clair. Jean Louise’s Aunt Alexandra (a very proper Southern lady) considered Cousin Joshua a “credit to the family,” but Jean Louise learned the truth from Atticus. Cousin Joshua had attended the University of Alabama, where he went mad and fired a gun at the University’s president. After that he was institutionalized for the rest of his life, and caused no more trouble.
Watchman contains many of the same or similar passages to Mockingbird, particularly in describing various unique characters of Maycomb. It is also a more scattered and disjointed piece of writing than Mockingbird, going off on tangents about the backstories of characters like Cousin Joshua. The book begins with a homecoming for Jean Louise, introducing an important theme of home and belonging.
Jean Louise admires the landscape and wonders why she never used to consider it beautiful. She tells the conductor to let her off at Maycomb junction, and expects that he will play the usual joke on her and pretend to go past the station before stopping. Jean Louise’s home is the town of Maycomb. She thinks about the history of Maycomb, which was founded because of the tactical mistakes of a certain Colonel Mason Maycomb in the Creek Indian Wars.
Jean Louise’s wide world of New York now converges back into the small town of Maycomb, where she was born and raised, and where the rest of the book will take place. While Mockingbird existed entirely within Maycomb, Watchman brings Jean Louise’s viewpoint informed by a wider, Northern world to her ideas and thoughts about Maycomb. The town has its own mythology and oral history, and Lee describes the kind of random chance that went into its founding.
The conductor passes the station and then stops, just as Jean Louise predicted. She is surprised to see that her father, Atticus, isn’t waiting for her as she had expected. Instead it is Henry “Hank” Clinton, her oldest friend and beau (boyfriend). Henry kisses Jean Louise when she gets off the train and then they walk together to his car. Jean Louise asks about Atticus, and Henry says that Atticus’s rheumatoid arthritis has been very bad lately, so that he can hardly close his hands. Atticus is very proud and reserved and won’t accept any help with his condition.
Hank is a new character who didn’t appear in Mockingbird, but he is clearly an important figure for Jean Louise and one deeply connected to both her childhood and Maycomb itself. The seemingly invincible Atticus of Mockingbird is now old and disabled by arthritis. Atticus’s absence at the train station is the first in a long line of unexpected surprises Jean Louise will experience during this homecoming, and prefigures the other more fundamental ways that Jean Louise will come to perceive a loss or absence in connection to Atticus.
Jean Louise gets into the car (which is Atticus’s) and jokes about its automatic transmission. Hank asks Jean Louise to marry him, half joking, and it is clear that he has asked before. Jean Louise says “not yet.” The narrator describes Hank’s past: his father had left his mother, and his mother had worked constantly to support Hank. When he was twelve Hank started boarding across from the Finches. When his mother died Atticus took him under his wing. When Jem, Atticus’s son, died suddenly at the age of twenty-eight of a heart defect, Atticus took in Hank as his successor at his law practice, and Hank became like a son to him.
Jem, one of the main characters of Mockingbird, is barely mentioned here. He has died young and basically been replaced by Hank, who is like Atticus’s new son but is also a romantic interest for Jean Louise. The Scout of Mockingbird was willful and very much a tomboy, and it’s clear that Jean Louise is still stubborn and unwilling to fulfill the usual gender roles that Maycomb expects of her, as she is wary of getting married.
Hank considers Atticus to be like his father, but doesn’t think of Jean Louise as his sister. He went away to war and the University and started dating Jean Louise whenever he was home. She had grown up from a wild tomboy into a “reasonable facsimile of a human being,” and he fell in love with her. He decided that he wanted to marry her.
Lee wrote Watchman before Mockingbird, so the beloved character of Scout the wild tomboy only exists here to explain Jean Louise’s history and temperament. The narrator often slips into Jean Louise’s voice, and is usually self-deprecating.
Jean Louise and Hank flirt, and then Hank stops the car and seriously asks her to marry him. He says that he now makes enough money to support them. Jean Louise tries to change the subject, and then tells him “I’ll have an affair with you but I won’t marry you.” Hank is upset, and Jean Louise knows that she is about to start a fight with him. She always does things the hard way, and so refuses to take the easy route of marrying Hank and letting him take care of her.
We get some glimpses here of Jean Louise’s firmness when she has made a decision, which will influence the plot later. Jean Louise is relatively unique in Maycomb not just for leaving to live in New York, but also for refusing to take the traditional route for the life of a Maycomb girl by marrying a “fine young man.”
Jean Louise apologizes to Hank and he remarks that she, unlike most women, can’t hide her feelings very well. Jean Louise says it’s better to be honest from the start, but Hank says that that isn’t how to “catch a man.” He then gives a list of how humble and pliable an ideal woman should be, and Jean Louise jokingly flatters him.
This is all flirtation for now, but we do see just how traditionally-minded Hank (and Maycomb in general) can be—he expects women to act a certain way, and though he is attracted to Jean Louise’s uniqueness, it also frustrates him.