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Arts & Culture

My Harper Lee SparkNotes

February 22, 2016 | by

Writing the SparkNotes for Go Set a Watchman. 

From the cover of Go Set a Watchman.


Context

The summer when I was eight, I read two books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird. My copy of Mockingbird was a cheap lilac paperback. Its cover featured the knot of a tree with a pocket watch and a ball of yarn inside, a mockingbird stamped in silhouette. In the corner, a crescent moon as thin as a tea-stain rose above a clot of green trees.

I lived inside that book. I read it, reread it, and reread it again, sitting in an attic bedroom of my grandparents’ house, hunched on the green shag carpet. I remember the book in discrete images: Dill’s duckweed-like tufts of hair. Slimy Mr. Ewell leering at his daughter. Miss Maudie’s house going up in flames, like a pumpkin, and her prized azaleas frozen and charred in the aftermath. Crotchety, liver-spotted Mrs. Dubose with her perfect camellias, ivory and globular against the glossy leaves. The day when Jem, in a sudden rampage, snatches Scout’s baton and shears off all the buds and flowers on the camellia bushes. And then, when Mrs. Dubose dies, the white box that her servant gives to Jem with one pristine, waxy camellia resting inside. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me how to create a fully realized, sensory world. 

 

Plot Overview

Last August, I wrote the SparkNotes for Go Set a Watchman. If, as Henry James wrote, a work of fiction is a house with a million windows, SparkNotes are condo units: they’re all the same size and shape, whether they summarize The Outsiders or War and Peace. And each is compartmentalized into familiar rubrics: summary, analysis, themes, symbols, motifs, context, character list, analysis of major characters, and, of course, a multiple-choice quiz.

SparkNotes started in 1999, when four Harvard graduates dreamed up TheSpark.com, a portal to host their new matchmaking service. Since TheSpark’s target audience was high school and college students, the founders posted literature study guides to lure them in. Eventually, dating and studying were uncoupled: the matchmaking site became OkCupid and the study guides became SparkNotes—essentially CliffsNotes for the Internet age. (Both deploy CamelCase, a medial capital in a compound word.) An early ad for the service described the difference between the two: “CliffsNotes cost money … but … SparkNotes are FREE!”

 

Character List

Harper Lee
HarperCollins
SparkNotes
My grandparents
The Internet
Jean Louise Finch
Atticus Finch
Me

 

Analysis of Major Characters

Harper Lee’s death, on February 19, 2016, inspired a flood of tributes. John Green, who has produced a Crash Course video about To Kill a Mockingbird for PBS, wrote a short series of elegiac tweets to commemorate Lee: “The great Harper Lee has died at the age of eighty-nine … When my son Henry was born, Ms. Lee signed a copy of [Green’s] Looking for Alaska for him with the inscription, ‘Welcome to the world Henry Atticus.’ … That book is my most prized possession. Ms. Lee lived a private life, but she was quietly and extraordinarily generous.”

When I graduated from high school, my grandparents gave me a new, hardbound copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. When I opened it, two handwritten notes slid out:

2-6-‘06

Dear Mr. Murray Raphel:

One thing the recent New York Times piece did not say is that because of my failing eyesight it is difficult for me to sign books. I sign mostly by touch now.

You would oblige me if you would accept the signed tip-in instead of sending me a book.

Sincerely,

Harper Lee

The “tip-in” reads:

To Adrienne

with all good wishes, 

Harper Lee

 

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

When I was growing up, Harper Lee was beloved in part for the scarcity of her work: she’d contributed a single gem to the literary canon, one that made her an untouchable icon. That changed, of course, in February 2015—as soon as HarperCollins announced the publication of Go Set a Watchman, my grandmother ordered me a copy. Between February and the book’s publication in July, my sense of dread eclipsed my anticipation. Go Set a Watchman was riddled with controversy before anyone had even read it—and it was still more problematic afterward.

As Katy Waldman wrote for Slate, Lee’s legacy has become complicated by “a sort of collective disenchantment, or an interlocking series of disappointments”—disappointments fueled in large part by Go Set a Watchman. Waldman also points out that Lee herself, ironically, would probably have approved of her flawed legacy. After all, she professed to have empathy for her flawed but ultimately deeply human characters.

 

Summary and Analysis

Writing SparkNotes can get your endorphins flowing in the same strange way that taking a standardized test does. When you take the job, you receive a style guide—essentially SparkNotes on writing SparkNotes. I got a crash course on the difference between “themes,” “motifs,” and “symbols,” and what level of detail I should use to describe each major character.

Go Set a Watchman is structured as though Harper Lee retrofitted it for the exact specifications of a SparkNote. Unlike some of its competitors, SparkNotes subdivides its summary and analysis: a chunk of summary, a chunk of analysis, et cetera. Any given SparkNote is divided into seven parts with nineteen chapters of roughly equal size.

To write my Note, I put myself in the same state as my imagined reader: a state of desperation. I wrote the detailed summary and analysis portions throughout the a week, but I left myself just twelve hours before the deadline to pound through the rest. I did everything I tell my students not to do: I checked my summary against Wikipedia, I tracked down listicles to crowd source the book’s most important quotations, and I found myself trying to cheat off the SparkNotes for To Kill a Mockingbird. What trait is Atticus Finch best known for: his integrity, his morality, or his dignity? What’s another way of saying “sleepy Southern town”? With twenty minutes to spare, I spell-checked and turned it in.

 

Important Quotations Explained

I wasn’t particularly moved by Watchman itself. Much of the dialogue is about as subtle as an anvil—“Hank, we are poles apart. I don’t know much but I know one thing. I can’t live with you”—and the plot doesn’t make much sense. Jean Louise, age twenty-six, returns to Maycomb for a visit with her beloved father, Atticus. She flirts with an old boyfriend, Hank. Though he’s a perfectly eligible young man, he seems to be convinced that he and Jean Louise will get married, although they only date for a few days a year. Jean Louise sees Atticus and Hank at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, a white-supremacist group; the meeting takes place in the same courthouse where Atticus had defended Tom Robinson at the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise, disgusted, wanders around town in a blind rage. Jean Louise wanders around Maycomb for a while, overcome with nostalgia and nausea. Eventually, her Uncle Jack slaps sense into her, and she suddenly realizes that her destiny is to remain in Maycomb, though not to marry Hank.

 

Key Facts

Writing the Note, I entered into a state of heightened clarity. I saw the book in clear, interwoven patterns, like a metro map. Each theme and motif snaked confidently across the map in bright lines of color, tracing a twisted but steady line through the city. Symbols dotted the map, radiating themes and motifs. I had the distinct sense that I was making everything up as I went along: “The Depth of Family Ties” is a theme! “Flashbacks” is a motif! “Watchman” is a symbol! I wrote each one with the bravura that comes with caffeine and the braggadocio that comes with an impending deadline. What was seemingly arbitrary suddenly congealed into cohesive patterns.

 

Study Questions

One spring, while I was teaching an introductory literature course, one of my students’ final papers seemed fishy. “Janie” had been a straightforward B student, consistently semi-engaged and solidly grammatical, if uninspired. But her paper on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass was different: suddenly, she was giving interpretations of the book that tracked motifs, themes, and symbols. When had Janie learned how to analyze? And the writing seemed odd, polished yet Frankensteined, as though she’d written it in discrete chunks of time and sutured it together.

I submitted Janie’s paper to turnitin.com, a plagiarism detection site, and the essay immediately returned flushed in red. She’d copy-and-pasted over 80 percent of her paper almost verbatim from SparkNotes. When I confronted Janie, she wrote to me—nested inside profuse apologies—“I will admit that I had taken part from those Web sites and put them in my work, but I intended on just looking at those ideas and reconstructing them into my own.”

Should I feel guilty about creating a piece of writing that potentially millions of students across America will attempt to plagiarize? Or should I be deeply flattered? Should I be nervous that my cobbled-together interpretations of Watchman might become literary dogma?

 

Suggested Essay Topics

My grandmother is one of the most voracious and thoughtful readers I know. When her three children went to college, she decided she wanted to go back and finish her degree. In 1980, at age fifty, while still working full time, she graduated from Stockton University, in New Jersey, with a B.A. in literature. My grandmother didn’t use cheat sheets: she was there to read, and read she did. After reading Go Set a Watchman, she e-mailed our family with her review of the novel, which began, “It is a flawed novel and probably would never have seen the light of day if it didn’t have the name of Harper Lee as author.”

At first, I was afraid to admit to my grandmother that I was writing the SparkNotes. Not only was I writing a thing that would help students skate by without actually reading the book, I was doing it for a book she didn’t even like. And this wasn’t just any author: this was our Harper Lee.

But my grandmother couldn’t have been more delighted. The idea of writing SparkNotes—once I explained to her exactly what it was—struck her as delightful. My grandmother has lived her entire life in Atlantic City, and you can’t live in that town for so long without some love of the ethically ambiguous. As a little girl, before she knew what she was doing, she used to run numbers in the back parlor of her father’s hotel. I was afraid that Go Set a Watchman would tarnish my grandmother’s love of To Kill a Mockingbird, and that my SparkNotes would be another layer of disappointment. But she saw what I saw: a way to live inside the book.

 

Suggestions for Further Reading

I use SparkNotes. I also use LitCharts, Shmoop, Masterplots, Wikipedia, and many other such sites. I don’t use them instead of the book; I use them to figure out if I’ve missed anything. I also use the book to figure out if the sites have missed anything. But they’re different things. A map of a country and the country itself both offer distinct joys of immersion, but they’re separate experiences.

Posterity will probably let Go Set a Watchman fade, or at least let it slip into the same corner of the bookshelf as Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, or Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men, or L. M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside: lesser-known novels that feature the same characters as their more famous counterparts. They aren’t necessarily bad books, but aren’t necessarily good, either. If you love the little orphan Anne in her Green Gables, loquacious, pigtailed days of Anne of Green Gables, the motherly, capable Anne with six children doesn’t change or ruin the other Anne, just as the so-called bigoted Atticus in Watchman doesn’t change the Atticus of Mockingbird.

My SparkNotes will never get the same kind of readership as the Note for To Kill a Mockingbird. And that’s fine. I don’t feel any kind of ownership over my Note. I’m not sure I’ll ever read it again. But I do feel like I have a deeper awareness of the mind that went into Go Set a Watchman. Through To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee taught me how to experience the sensory world. By letting me into her mind in writing Go Set a Watchman, Lee gave me the heightened clarity of living in the map.

 

Quiz

What is a Watchman?

  1. A Theme
  2. A Motif
  3. A Symbol
  4. A Major Character

What is CamelCase?

  1. Using medial capitals in a compound word (e.g., SparkNotesCliffsNotes)
  2. A word that contains two humped-shaped letters
  3. A mockingbird
  4. The format of John Green’s tweets about Harper Lee

How will Harper Lee be remembered?

  1. As the author who took the time to write an unknown teenager and her grandparents two handwritten notes
  2. As the author of one of the most beloved novels of the twentieth century
  3. As the crux of one of the most beloved literary maelstroms of the twenty-first century
  4. As the creator of a world

Adrienne Raphel is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Ph.D. student at Harvard, where she writes about poetics and plays word games. She contributes regularly to The New Yorker online, and her debut collection of poetry, What Was It Foris forthcoming from Rescue Press in 2017.