Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman Part 6, Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Atticus sends Hank away, and Jean Louise realizes that they are standing in the spot (outside his office) where Jem died. She shudders, and Atticus notices. He invites her into his office to talk. His office used to always be a safe place of refuge for her. Atticus sits down and tells her to not be too hard on Hank, as men “can be perfectly honest in some ways and fool themselves in other ways.” He says Uncle Jack told him that Jean Louise was upset. Jean Louise feels betrayed by Uncle Jack, and thinks that she’s done with her family for good now.
This scene is the climax of the book, as Jean Louise faces her own conflicted feelings, her idealized version of Atticus, and the flawed human being that is the real Atticus. Jean Louise is freshly reminded of Jem’s death just as she feels that Atticus too is dead to her. This Atticus, like the character from Mockingbird, is always pointing out the humanity in people even when it’s hard to see.
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Conscience and Principles Theme Icon
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Jean Louise decides to not argue with Atticus, but just to tell him her thoughts and then leave. She declares that the citizens’ council is disgusting. Atticus says that everyone at the meeting was probably there for a different reason. He asks Jean Louise what she thought when she first heard about the Supreme Court decision enforcing integration. Jean Louise admits that she was furious about the federal government “tellin’ us what to do again.”
Jean Louise knows that Atticus the lawyer will find a way to win in an argument, and Jean Louise wants to preserve her beloved version of him in her memory, so she decides to just speak her mind and leave. But instead Atticus lulls her into a side issue, and we see just how conservative and Southern Jean Louise is on issues other than race.
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Conscience and Principles Theme Icon
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Jean Louise knows that Atticus is keeping the conversation in safe territory, so she keeps talking. She thinks that the Supreme Court decision violated the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, which guarantees states’ rights. She thinks the decision will adversely affect most people. Atticus says that she is more of a “states’ rightist” than he is, and now that he’s adjusted to her “feminine reasoning” he thinks they’re in agreement.
Jean Louise is a staunch supporter of states’ rights, and agrees with Jack and Atticus that the federal government overextended itself and intruded upon the South with the Supreme Court decision, even if she agrees with the moral underpinnings of that decision. Atticus is condescending in a sexist way here, just as Uncle Jack was, and looking back at Mockingbird we can see him acting in a similar way in dealing with Mayella Ewell at Tom Robinson’s trial.
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Though Jean Louise had started this conversation with the idea of not arguing, and then escaping to New York while preserving Atticus as a happy memory, but now she decides to go ahead and argue with him. She asks him why he won’t do the right thing. He says that he too thinks the Supreme Court overstepped its bounds, and he won’t take it lying down. Jean Louise responds that even though the Court acted in a frighteningly powerful way, they still did the right thing, and that it’s time to give black people a chance.
Jean Louise’s original intention fails in the face of her father’s calm and lawyerly strategies. Jean Louise finally states her position more plainly: she thinks the Supreme Court intruded upon the South and acted in a dictatorial way, but she also thinks that it made the right decision, and that institutional racism and segregation is indeed unconstitutional and immoral.
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Atticus responds that Southern blacks already have had their chance. He says that their civilization, as a whole, is “backward,” and not as advanced as white civilization, and so forcing these two civilizations together will lead to trouble. Jean Louise answers with Atticus’s own words: “Equal rights for all; special privileges for none.” Atticus goes into details, saying that black people aren’t ready for all the responsibilities of American citizenship, like voting and running for political office.
Atticus and Jean Louise agree on the states’ rights issue, but here they truly come to an impasse, as Atticus shows the racist ideas underlying his whole worldview—ideas that exist even alongside his justice, empathy, and kindness. Atticus’s words from the Tom Robinson trial are again quoted as an example of his seemingly-saintlike former self.
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Conscience and Principles Theme Icon
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Atticus says that Jean Louise is being inconsistent by attacking the Supreme Court but also defending equal rights for blacks. Atticus says that he is old-fashioned, and believes in personal responsibility for every citizen, and thinks that the government should leave its citizens alone in a “live-and-let-live economy.” He says the NAACP should stay out of people’s business, as it has caused a lot of damage.
Atticus as a character can still have personal integrity—treating all people alike and living by his principles in daily life—while defending racism on a structural level. These traits are not contradictory, and in fact this conversation adds a greater level of depth to the Atticus of Mockingbird.
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Jean Louise argues that actually helping black people has been left out of this ideological debate. She says that the South should have been fighting the Supreme Court, but instead they just turned against blacks. Atticus says to think of things practically, and asks if Jean Louise wants “Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Jean Louise says that they’re people too, and so they deserve that.
Atticus wants to think of things as Uncle Jack does, and keep the argument on an ideological level, while Jean Louise takes the next step of integrating one’s politics with one’s daily life. Atticus risked his career to help a seemingly doomed black man, but he can still make racist statements like this about black people in general. One might argue that a philosophy of radical “personal responsibility” such as Atticus’s makes one blind to the effects of history and systemic oppression, taking each person and measuring who they are in the moment and refusing to see the profoundly unfair forces that shaped and are shaping them.
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Atticus says that he’s trying to make Jean Louise understand his position. Nothing has convinced him to change it in his seventy-two years, but he’s still open to suggestion. He says blacks in the South aren’t ready to be a part of government. He says “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” The NAACP doesn’t actually care about black people’s rights, he says: it just wants their votes.
Later Uncle Jack will call Jean Louise a “bigot” for refusing to consider others’ points of views, and that accusation hinges on the fact that Atticus claims that he is open to suggestion and willing to change his mind. But there is still a disconnect between his politics and his personal life.
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Atticus asks Jean Louise how she could have grown up in Maycomb and not understand all this. Jean Louise says that she learned everything from Atticus himself. She says he must have forgotten to tell her about the natural inferiority of blacks. She calls him a snob and a tyrant, and accuses him of abandoning Calpurnia’s grandson. She reminds him of the rape case he defended twenty years ago, and says that he must have loved justice only abstractly even then—it had nothing to do with helping the black man himself.
Jean Louise’s disillusionment does seem sudden and exaggerated, as it’s hard to believe such issues haven’t come up before. The character of Jean Louise in Watchman is essentially the woman that Mockingbird’s Scout would grow up to be if she continued to idolize her father and never look at him objectively. She can now recognize the two aspects of his character—abstract and personal.
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Jean Louise tells Atticus that everything she learned she got from him, and that he should only blame himself that she turned out this way. She says he’s cheated her, and made her so she doesn’t belong anywhere. There’s no place for her in Maycomb anymore, and she can’t call anywhere else home. She asks him why he didn’t make things more clear to her about his views on right and wrong and black and white. She goes on, listing all the racist things Atticus supposedly believes, and finally Atticus stops her.
Jean Louise finally finds her voice and lets loose on Atticus, instead of trying to argue with him about states’ rights. She is justifiably angry at him for defending institutional racism even as he raised her with principles that inherently mean she finds racism immoral. Here it is also made explicit that her disillusionment with Atticus is connected with her new feeling of not belonging anywhere.
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Jean Louise can tell that Atticus is still a “gentleman” no matter what, but she keeps going with her angry accusations. She says she never looked up to anyone like she looked up to Atticus, and she never will again. She wishes she had caught him doing something wrong earlier in life so she wouldn’t have worshipped him like she did.
Jean Louise’s anger echoes that which the reader of Mockingbird might experience when reading Watchman—wanting to return to that childlike world of good vs. evil, instead of this murky and ugly world where there are no real heroes. And yet looking back at Mockingbird in light of Watchman, it is more clear that Atticus was never as perfect as he seemed. Atticus as a polite “gentleman” seems feeble as a defense of his racist views.
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Atticus pleads with her, saying that he only let Mr. O’Hanlon speak because he had asked to, and that his views are sadistic and not typical of the citizens’ council. Jean Louise says that in real life Atticus has never treated black people any differently from white people, but in his politics he is denying them their humanity because he is denying them hope. She and Atticus might believe in the same ends (states’ rights), but Jean Louise can’t accept using people as pawns in achieving these ends.
Atticus continues to muddy the waters by asking for empathy again, and stating that he doesn’t agree with Mr. O’Hanlon’s hateful speech. Jean Louise has found her voice and is better at arguing with her father now, however, and so cuts to the hypocrisy in his arguments: that he is supposedly fighting for the constitution and states’ rights, but is sacrificing the civil rights of citizens to do so.
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Jean Louise suggests what might happen if the South had a “Be Kind to the Niggers Week,” where black people were really treated like equal humans. She admits that some blacks might be “backwards,” but says she’s amazed they’ve made it this far considering how snubbed and degraded they are in every aspect of life. She declares that Atticus is the only person she ever fully trusted, and he has cheated her. She’ll never believe him again, and she despises him.
Jean Louise can now see the disconnect between Atticus’s personal life and his politics, and so she tries to turn his lessons in empathy back towards himself. It is hypocritical to consider himself “snubbed” by the federal government when he is fighting for the institutional “snubbing” of blacks.
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Atticus responds with “well, I love you.” Jean Louise gets angrier, declaring that she’s leaving and never wants to see another Finch again. She curses at Atticus, who only responds with “as you please” and “that’ll do.” Jean Louise storms out.
The ideological argument now basically devolves into a personal one, as Jean Louise lashes out at the father she feels has betrayed her, and Atticus doesn’t try to defend himself, but only shows that he is still the same man that raised Jean Louise, that despite his disagreement with her he loves her, and with the suggestion that love and an attempt at understanding can exist even in the face of profound disagreement and disappointment.
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