55 years after the debut of her iconic first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, reclusive author Harper Lee has published its sequel, Go Set a Watchman, whose title is derived from a biblical verse in the Book of Isaiah.
Lee, a native Southerner, has had a strong connection with the Bible since she was a child. According to Wayne Flynt, a longtime friend of Lee and a Baptist minister, the famous author “grew up in a Bible-reading family. She was imprinted with it as a child.”
The verse in full, as found in the King James version of the Bible, which Flynt said Lee favored, reads: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” (Isaiah 21:6)
The context of the verse is a prophecy of the fall of Babylon by the Prophet Isaiah, warning that he has seen a vision of a watchman on a tower, waiting for chariots and riders to come and report that the immoral and idol-worshipping city of Babylon has fallen to invaders.
Flynt believes that Lee intended Babylon to be a metaphor for Monroeville, the Southern setting of her books. “‘Go Set a Watchman’ means, ‘Somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town,’” Flynt said.
The book, which was released July 14, was actually written before To Kill A Mockingbird, but its existence was a secret until last year, when it was discovered among Lee’s personal effects.
The novel picks up twenty years after Mockingbird, following the beloved figure of Scout, now Jean Louise, into the struggles of young adulthood, which include facing off with her father, the literary hero Atticus Finch, on matters of race.
In Mockingbird, Atticus represents tolerance, justice and the progression of social values; in Watchman, he embraces segregation and racism to an uncomfortable degree. Jean Louise is forced to reconcile her adult worldview with a childhood hometown which is torn by racial tensions and unpalatable truths.
Go Set a Watchman is not the only twentieth-century literary work to have a biblically-derived name. Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, gets its title from a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides for ever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-5)
Hemingway’s title is meant as an allusion to the post-war generation which, embittered by the violence and horrors of World War I, questioned conventional moralities and values. The Ecclesiastes quote is a reminder that despite our earthly struggles, the world is everlasting, and life will always go on.
While the actual novel does not include many biblical themes, the title itself sets the story in a meaningful existential context by referring to the world’s eternal nature.
In contrast, William Faulkner’s famous 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! contains a great many biblical parallels in addition to its biblical name. Its title is derived from the second book of Samuel, which tells the story of King David and his son, Absalom.
After raising a revolt against his father, Absalom led an army against King David’s forces, and was killed. After Absalom’s death, despite his rebellion, his father mourned him greatly, weeping: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)
Faulkner’s novel loosely follows the biblical story, echoing the same themes found in Samuel: incest, rape, fratricide, and revenge. Most of all, however, it is the story of the complex and harrowing struggle of a son against the empire his father has built. The book is interwoven with dozens of biblical references and parallels, enriching the text with layers of meaning.
John Steinbeck’s 1952 classic novel, East of Eden, is heavily based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Its title comes from Genesis 4:16 and refers to the place where Cain settles after being cursed by God for killing his brother: “So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”
The main plotline of the book follows the lives of two sets of brothers through the first half of the 20th century. Each pair of brothers contains a Cain and an Abel, and within the relationships between them, the same motifs, themes, and symbols found in the Genesis story repeat again and again.
The book grapples with questions of the largest magnitude, touching on deeply religious and ethical themes like the timeless struggle between good and evil and the existence of free will.
Whether Watchman will join this pantheon of American classics remains to be seen, but it is already part of a tradition which draws on the richest literary source in the history of mankind: the Bible.
The Bible, which is the number one bestselling book in history, is the original story of all human knowledge, wisdom, literature and art. Through its connection with the Bible, the message of Go Set a Watchman is enhanced and enriched with infinite layers of meaning.