Go Set a Watchman | Study Guide

Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Set in the 1950s, Go Set a Watchmen opens with 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch traveling by train from her present home in New York City to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. She will stay with her father, Atticus, and her Aunt Alexandra. Atticus Finch is a widowed 72-year-old attorney with arthritis and poor eyesight. His sister, Jean Louise's Aunt Alexandra, is a prickly and proper woman who does her best to uphold the norms and traditions of Maycomb's upper middle-class white community.

Jean Louise is met at the station by Henry "Hank" Clinton, the boyfriend who hopes to become her fiancé. Since the death of Jeremy "Jem" Atticus Finch, Jean Louise's brother, Atticus has taken Hank under his wing, treating him as a son, both personally and professionally. Hank, a veteran of World War II and an attorney, is well-thought of in Maycomb. Hank drives Jean Louise to her father's home.

Analysis

Jean Louise, the heroine of the story, begins a journey, one that has both a tangible, physical component as well as an inner component. She leaves New York City, bringing with her some of the progressive notions about race held by Northerners. Southerners tend to resent any intrusion into their affairs by people from the North. Southerners don't yet accept many progressive views held by Northerners and view Northerners with suspicion.

Jean Louise travels to her hometown of Maycomb by train, a mode of transportation that leaves the driving to someone else and that travels on a set track. This reflects Jean Louise's inner state as she begins the journey. Although she doesn't realize it at this point in the story, she is dependent on her father as her moral compass. When she arrives at the station, she is met by her boyfriend, Hank. Although Jean Louise can drive, she lets Hank take the wheel. Again, readers witness Jean Louise deferring to someone else as "driver." Hank's expert driving suggests he has outpaced Jean Louise in directing his own life, despite Jean Louise's perception that living on her own in New York City and dressing in slacks and loafers indicate her independence.

The story opens with Jean Louise drinking her morning coffee, the first of four cups she will have before reaching Maycomb. Coffee, an "adult beverage," signifies Jean Louise's perception of maturity.

Symbols of vision appear in a variety of forms throughout the novel, such as eyes, eyeglasses, and vision impairments. Vision is sometimes used to convey discernment and open-mindedness to the needs of others, but vision impairments suggest a limited perspective or, even worse, bigotry, i.e., an intolerance to the different perspectives of others. Such visual impairment is reflected in Jean Louise's personal life, as she views herself as a modern, self-aware woman, yet she is blind to her own narrow views as well as to her dependence on her father as her moral compass. She believes she knows her father as well as she knows her own self, in part because she sees them as sharing the same perspectives. For example, in this chapter Jean Louise thinks about the perspective she and her father share concerning Aunt Alexandra's sense of superiority. Becoming aware of her own blindness with regard to her father will be a major source of tension in the story.

In Part 1, which includes Chapters 1, 2, and 3, the reader is introduced to the hero's "ordinary world." According to American scholar Joseph Campbell's model of the Hero's Journey, understanding the hero's background and environment helps the reader relate to the main character. In Chapter 1 the reader learns that the father of hero Jean Louise is aging and his health is beginning to fail, but he and Jean Louise share a special closeness. Atticus's ailing health suggests his human frailty, which sets up the beginning of tension for Jean Louise, who still views Atticus through the lens of her childhood idealism. The reader also begins to feel the tension that Jean Louise experiences as her modern ways conflict with Aunt Alexandra's "old school ways" of the established Maycomb social order. In addition, the reader gains a sense of the familiarity Jean Louise must feel as the conductor lets her off in a predictable way, to reenter a hometown described as a place cut off from other parts of the nation, one that relies more on tradition than on truth.

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