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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Pervasiveness of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy and perceived bigotry form the central emotional crux of Go Set a Watchman. The main hypocrisy that is at the center of the novel is the one that Jean Louise perceives from Atticus. Jean Louise enters the novel with the firm belief that Atticus can do no wrong, ethically and morally speaking. He taught her to treat all people equally and with great respect. However, when Atticus attends the meeting of Maycomb’s white supremacists without actively protesting, Jean Louise feels as though the bottom has dropped out from underneath her.

When Jean Louise perceives Atticus’s hypocrisy, she begins to believe that there is no one in the world whom she can trust. Alexandra also seems like a hypocrite to Jean Louise because she is willing to accept Maycomb’s racism and does not chastise Atticus for attending the white supremacist meeting. Henry is a hypocrite because he attends the meeting for his own political gain, wiling to accept others’ bigotry just so that he doesn’t get singled out and lambasted for seeming antagonistic. The ladies at the Coffee just seem like uninformed bigots to Jean Louis: instead of thinking for themselves and acting on their own accord, they are perfectly willing to accept the rumors that their husbands and their friend promote.

The Depth of Family Ties

Even though Jean Louise resists life in Maycomb and feels betrayed by Atticus, she is continuously pulled back to her childhood home because of her love for her family. Jean Louise fights with Atticus and accuses him of deceiving her throughout her entire childhood. In Jean Louise’s perception, Atticus taught her by his own example that she should always be on the side of justice and should promote equality without ever tolerating intolerance. When she sees Atticus acting in direct opposition to these precepts, her impulse is to flee. But Uncle Jack convinces Jean Louise that she herself would be a hypocrite if she turned her back on things she disagrees with instead of facing them and arguing for her own beliefs. If Jean Louise left Atticus and the rest of Maycomb, she would be the bigot. But if she stays and explains her beliefs, she will be following Atticus’s true teachings. Instead of setting himself up as her primary moral example, Atticus teaches Jean Louise how to become her own conscience and her own guide.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Flashbacks

The multiple flashbacks throughout Go Set a Watchman create a dual layer to the town of Maycomb. Jean Louise experiences the town as a twenty-six-year-old visitor, observing it from afar. However, she also remembers how the town looked and how she felt when she was growing up in the community. In each flashback, Jean Louise re-lives a moment from her childhood that helps her process the present day, either by providing a point of contrast or a parallel moment. For example, when Uncle Jack tries to reason with Jean Louise about Atticus’s attendance at the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, he tries to plant a seed of an idea in her mind so that she can come to her own conclusion about the events, but the seed fails to take hold immediately. Jean Louise remembers another time of profound and uncomfortable change in her life, that is, her awkward transition from girlhood to adolescence. Specifically, she recalls an incident in which Atticus planted the seed of an idea in Henry’s mind, which showed Henry how to save Jean Louise from humiliation and shame.

Individual Versus Group

Groups hold many beliefs and perceptions in Maycomb, and individuals must choose whether or not he or she will follow what the group believes. When Jean Louise sees Atticus and Henry attending the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council Meeting, she immediately plucks them out individually from the group and blames them for attending the meeting. She perceives attendance at the organization as tacit acceptance of the group’s beliefs. As the novel progresses, Jean Louise learns different ways of maintaining individuality within group settings, as well as the difference between one group and multiple subgroups within a larger organization. At the Coffee that Alexandra hosts for her, Jean Louise feels like an individual who does not fit into Maycomb society as a whole. She also feels like an individual on the outside of each of the subgroups within the Maycomb ladies, since she does not identify with any of the various roles that Maycomb women play. Jean Louise staunchly maintains her own identity instead of attempting to assimilate.

Instances of individuals standing out against a group may be comical or serious. In church, the congregation’s interpretation of the Doxology, which has persisted over generations, easily overrides the music director’s individual decision to direct the organist in a different melody. Individuals might have differences of opinion, and in that case, they have to choose whether to express contrary beliefs to a potentially antagonistic group or whether they will keep their opinions to themselves. Sometimes, individuals have opinions that are right when the group is wrong. Uncle Jack doesn’t agree with the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council’s views on white supremacy, so he chooses not to attend. But Atticus and Henry’s choice to attend these meeting does not mean that they each believe everything that the group professes.

Joining the group isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and a group can rally for the benefit of the individual. When Zeebo’s son kills the white pedestrian in a driving accident, a large community of black people congregates at Calpurnia’s house to help Calpurnia, Zeebo, and Zeebo’s son. Similarly, when Mr. Tuffett finds Jean Louise’s false bosoms and threatens to expel the culprit, the whole school comes to her aid, thanks to Henry’s help. The students may or may not know whom they’re helping, but they all rally together to help the individual against injustice.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Watchman

A watchman is someone who serves as a moral compass, even in the face of temptation and malevolence, and throughout the novel, Jean Louise must learn how to become her own watchman rather than relying on others to guide her. Go Set a Watchman, the phrase in the novel’s title, comes from Isaiah 21:6, which reads, “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Throughout her life, Jean Louise has perceived Atticus as both her family’s personal watchman and the watchman for the whole town of Maycomb. When Jean Louise sees her father as a hypocrite and realizes how pervasive bigotry has become in Maycomb, she experiences profound disillusionment, and her faith in how she has always perceived the world is shaken. How can Jean Louise trust in anything if she cannot trust that her father will always be the watchman?

Jean Louise discovers over the course of the novel that she must become her own watchman, and she must set her own moral conscience. No one can guide her ethically other than herself. In the beginning of the novel, the “watchman” of the title seems to be Atticus, but as the novel progresses, Jean Louise herself becomes a watchman. As she undergoes the pain of betrayal and discovers her beliefs in the process, Jean Louise comes to learn that the people of Maycomb need her to help provide a different perspective. Just as Jean Louise needed Atticus to serve as her watchman when she was a child, Jean Louise provides a strong voice of integrity that many of Maycomb’s citizens might be able to hear and understand. Jean Louise can help people articulate what they do not yet know they truly believe.

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