Go Set a Watchman


Harper Lee

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The twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch takes a train from her current home in New York City to visit her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. As a girl in Maycomb, she was raised by her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, who is now seventy-two and has rheumatoid arthritis. His sister Alexandra now lives with him, and his business apprentice is Henry “Hank” Clinton, Jean Louise’s oldest friend and beau. Jean Louise’s older brother Jem died years earlier.

Hank picks up Jean Louise in Atticus’s car. Hank repeats his earlier proposals of marriage and Jean Louise half-rejects them. They drive home and Jean Louise briefly discusses the Supreme Court decision “Brown v. Board of Education” with Atticus. Jean Louise suggests that she might marry Hank, but Alexandra disapproves. Hank takes Jean Louise on a date, and she reminisces about her childhood when she, Jem, and their friend Dill had a pretend religious revival and baptism.

Hank and Jean Louise go swimming at Finches’ Landing, which was once the family’s estate but is now a hunting club. The next morning the family goes to church with Uncle Jack, an eccentric former doctor. At church Jack is horrified when the organist plays a tradition hymn differently.

That afternoon Hank picks up Atticus for a “citizens’ council” meeting at the town courthouse. Jean Louise finds a racist pamphlet called “The Black Plague” among her father’s papers. Alexandra defends the tract. Jean Louise goes to the courthouse and sees that almost every man in town is there, including Hank and her father. Atticus introduces the meeting’s speaker, whose speech (defending segregation) is full of racist invective and fearmongering. Jean Louise watches Atticus and Hank and feels physically sick.

Jean Louise leaves and wanders through town, stopping at the ice cream shop where her childhood home in town used to stand. She gets an ice cream and then throws up, walks home, and falls asleep. Jean Louise has a flashback to when she was in sixth grade and thought that she was pregnant because a boy kissed her. She planned to kill herself to avoid bringing shame on her family, but was stopped by Hank at the last minute.

In the present Jean Louise wakes up and avoids talking to anyone. She then learns that the Finches’ old black housekeeper Calpurnia’s grandson was driving drunk and killed a white man the night before. Atticus says he will defend him, but only to keep the NAACP off the case. Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, who is cold and distant with her, which upsets Jean Louise greatly. Jean Louise returns home, where Aunt Alexandra holds a “Coffee” for the young women of Maycomb to visit her. Jean Louise doesn’t fit in with any of them, and is repulsed by their racist gossip.

She goes to visit Uncle Jack. She asks him about Atticus and Hank, and Jack gives her vague and convoluted arguments about the Civil War. Jean Louise is frustrated and leaves.

She goes back to the ice cream shop and reminisces about a high school dance where Hank was her date. Jean Louise wore a pair of “false bosoms,” which fell out and Hank threw away. The next morning the principle was furious to find them hanging over a memorial to Maycomb soldiers. Hank saved Jean Louise from punishment by forging confessions from every other girl in school.

In the present Jean Louise finds Hank and tells him that she isn’t going to marry him. Hank defends the citizens’ council, saying that he has to go along with Maycomb’s customs if he is to be respected and useful. Atticus arrives. He and Jean Louise discuss states’ rights and the Supreme Court decision, and then Jean Louise angrily curses at her father for betraying her and letting her down. She storms out.

Jean Louise drives home and packs her things, planning to leave Maycomb forever. Uncle Jack drives up and slaps Jean Louise in the face. They both have a drink, and Jack tells Jean Louise that she has now become her own person by allowing Atticus to be a human being with failings. He suggests that she move back to Maycomb. Jean Louise picks up Atticus from his office. He tells her he’s proud of her, and she tells him that she loves him.