The central plot of Go Set a Watchman revolves around Jean Louise (Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) returning home to Maycomb after years in New York City and becoming disillusioned with Henry “Hank” Clinton, her old friend and possible fiancé, and Atticus, her father. Most of this disillusionment focuses on Atticus. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is a saintlike figure whom Scout and Jem idolize and depend upon. The character of Atticus is similar in Go Set a Watchman, in which he is idolized by Jean Louise as a child and into adulthood as a morally upright, courageous man who can find the good in everyone. But Jean Louise’s idolization of her father is broken when she returns home as a twenty-six-year-old and finds her father to be a staunch segregationist—wanting blacks and whites to be kept “separate but equal.” The great moment of disillusionment comes when Jean Louise sees Atticus and Hank, along with most of the men of Maycomb, at a “citizens’ council” meeting alongside sadistic white supremacists and crooked politicians. Watching Atticus, from whom she had learned all her ideas about morality, acting as a part of something she sees as immoral is a painful experience for Jean Louise. She considers equality between people of all races to be a natural part of her principles, and assumes that Atticus feels the same—especially because she learned such principles from Atticus himself. Jean Louise becomes physically ill at his perceived betrayal, and she responds by lashing out at others.
When Jean Louise talks to Uncle Jack the second time, however, he explains the importance of this painful disillusionment: Jean Louise had unwittingly elevated Atticus to a godlike status, and so in seeing his flaws she can now consider him a real human being. Before this, Jean Louise had been proud that her father wasn’t like other fathers, but now she is forced to accept that he is still merely a mortal man. This experience of disillusionment is difficult, but Lee argues that is it valuable in order to truly recognize each other as worthwhile human beings. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout was disillusioned by seeing the racism at the heart of Maycomb. In Go Set a Watchman she must break her last remaining idol: Atticus. Both novels, however, conclude with the need to accept the basic dignity of all people, no matter how disappointing they might be.
This disillusionment also extends to the “meta-textual level”—a level outside the story itself—as many readers who loved Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird might feel hurt and betrayed by his character in Go Set a Watchman, echoing the feelings of Jean Louise herself. The Atticus in Watchman is more realistic and human, especially considering his time and location, while the Atticus of Mockingbird is more idealized and unrealistic—a saintlike father seen through the eyes of a young girl and a nation looking for an example of pure moral goodness. Watchman was written before Mockingbird, but it is more cynical in its view of the kind of racist condescension that might lie behind even a seemingly pure and righteous man’s actions.
Disillusionment Quotes in Go Set a Watchman
Henry said, “Were you serious a minute ago when you said you didn’t like your world disturbed?”
“Hm?” She did not know. She supposed she was. She tried to explain: “It’s just that every time I’ve come home for the past five years—before that, even. From college—something’s changed a little more…”
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.
She walked down the steps and into the shade of a live oak. She put her arm out and leaned against the trunk. She looked at Maycomb, and her throat tightened: Maycomb was looking back at her.
Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets.
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.
What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked?
“Thanks, but Scout’ll run me down later.”
His use of her childhood name crashed on her ears. Don’t you ever call me that again. You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave.
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…
“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….”
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.
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.
“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?”
“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—”
“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?”
“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—”
“You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it’s coming home to you—”
“Are you finished with what you have to say?”
She sneered. “Not half through. I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me. You cheated me, you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in a no-man’s-land but good—there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”