Saturday, July 11, 2015

Comparing the First Chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman

I know it’s unfair to judge a book after reading only the first chapter, just as it’s unfair to compare a master work to an apprentice effort, but with the release of chapter one of the highly-anticipated Go
Set a Watchman in the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian, comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird are inevitable, so why not take a brief look at what makes one of these books a beloved classic and perennial bestseller and the other a solid first draft?

To Kill a Mockingbird begins with an accident followed by an argument.  In three short paragraphs, Jem breaks his arm, Dill enters the picture, and Lee establishes a distinct narrative voice.  Watchman, on the other hand, pulls into the station slowly and in a manner typical of MFA students.  A single person rides home on a train and memories ensue.  In three paragraphs, the reader is given description, characterization, and one mildly interesting anecdote—Jean Louise locks herself into a sleeping compartment—but little else.
Both first chapters provide details about the protagonist’s home town, but only one moves seamlessly back and forth in time.  In Mockingbird, historical background helps build the story and provides insights into the characters involved.  Watchman provides similar background material, but in a way that feels like we are being spoon-fed information.  

Mockingbird produces an immediate abundance of lively, developed characters.  We get to know Scout, Jem, Dill, and, to a lesser extent, Atticus.  Even Calpurnia makes an appearance.  The opening chapter of Watchman yields one interesting character—Jean Louise—and one (I want to say his name is Henry) who doesn’t even seem to interest her.   

Mockingbird plunges the reader into the story.  Every line of every paragraph compels us forward just as the children are compelled to walk up to the front door of the Radley house.  We feel the way the children must feel—that we are walking up to the edge of a haunted house, with the mysterious Boo standing at the window.  

What story is Watchman setting up?  The only aspects that are likely to drive us forward—Atticus is missing, Jem is dead—depend on us having read and loved Mockingbird.  

But that’s the thing, right?  We have read Mockingbird.  We care about its characters.  We get to ride back to Maycomb on a train, and it feels like we’re going home.  We can’t wait to find out what has happened to the people we cared about. 

The main difference, then, is that one of these books requires us to love the other.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t bother reading it. 

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