Themes and Characters

The central Characters of To Kill a Mockingbird are Jean Louise (Scout), Jeremy Atticus (Jem), and Atticus Finch. Scout, precocious and outspoken, possesses a quick mind and a hot temper; her persistent desire to learn about and participate in the world around her frequently gets her into trouble at home and at school. When Walter Cunningham, a poor classmate of Scout’s, is invited to lunch at the Finches’, Scout watches in horror as Walter, unaccustomed to the formality of the Finches’ noon-time meal, drowns his food in maple syrup. Without realizing her rudeness, Scout asks Walter what the “sam hill” he thinks he is doing; she receives a stern lecture from Calpurnia on the meaning of hospitality and good manners. Later, when her spoiled cousin Francis taunts her by criticizing Atticus, Scout-who has been trying to curb her combative tendencies-punches Francis in the mouth and is promptly punished. At school, when Scout tries to be helpful and educate Miss Caroline, her nervous, inexperienced first-grade teacher, about Maycomb County protocol, Miss Caroline disciplines her for impudence. Still, Scout remains a spunky, inquisitive, and loyal child whose love for her father and brother is evident throughout the story; as the novel progresses, she develops the sensitivity and self-control that characterize the voice of the adult Scout who narrates the story.

Both Atticus and Jem shape Scout’s development. Every night before she goes to bed, Scout reads with her father. He instills in her a love of reading so natural that Scout notes: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Atticus teaches Scout to behave with dignity and compassion; he never speaks down to her, but credits her with the intelligence to understand the point of such lessons as not to judge another person “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He explains his treatment of his children to his brother, Jack: “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.”

Nearly fifty years old, Atticus is older than most parents of Scout and Jem’s friends; he differs from many of the adults in Maycomb in that he fights the entrenched ignorance and prejudice of the region. In his private life as a father and his public life as an attorney, Atticus champions honesty, fairness, and respect for the opinions and rights of others. His character seems believable despite his larger-than-life role as the moral center of the novel. Atticus also displays a dry sense of humor; when a drunken Bob Ewell threatens to kill Atticus and then spits in his face, Atticus’s only comment about the incident is, “I wish Bob Ewell wouldn’t chew tobacco.” He shows fear when the children try to protect him from a mob intent on lynching Tom Robinson, and as a result of Aunt Alexandria’s criticism, he exhibits temporary self-doubt about his ability as a single parent.

Jem has inherited his father’s stubbornness and sense of righteousness. He is both playmate and protector to Scout, and in many ways her narrative seems to be a nostalgic reConstruction of the past in terms of her older brother’s maturation. Likewise, Lee articulates many of her Themes through her depiction of Jem’s moral and emotional development. When the story begins, he is a bright, level-headed ten-year-old who loves to play imaginative games with Scout and Dill. But as he grows older, Jem becomes moodier; because he is four years older than Scout, he is beginning to understand, and thus is more strongly affected by, adult realities such as racism, ignorance, and cruelty.

Jem’s maturation is partially reflected in his changing attitude toward the Boo Radley game that the children play. The summer that Scout is six and Jem is ten, the children decide to try to make Boo come out of the Radley Place. Initially, Jem feeds the children’s fear of Boo, describing Boo’s bloodstained hands and rotting teeth, and confiding, “I’ve seen his tracks in our back yard many a mornin’, and one night I heard him scratching on the back screen, but he was gone time Atticus got there.” The children dare each other to touch the house, try to deliver a note to Boo, and despite strict orders from Atticus to stop playing the Radley game, try to peek in a window and catch a glimpse of Boo. But when Jem and Scout begin to find objects, such as an old spelling medal and carved soap figures of themselves, hidden for them in the knot-hole of a tree in front of the Radley Place, Jem realizes what Scout does not, that the objects are gestures of affection from Boo, who has been shut away in his house since he was a boy. Jem begins to understand that Boo is a real person who has been cruelly deprived of a normal life.

Just as his attitude toward Boo changes, so too do Jem’s feelings for his sister, his father, and his town. Where he once accused Scout of acting too much like a girl, her now tells her to act more like one; where he was once embarrassed that his father is too old to play football, he now admires his father’s courage in the courtroom; where he once took for granted the basic goodness and decency of the townspeople, he comes to a new realization about them after he witnesses the conviction of Tom Robinson. Jem tries to explain his disillusionment to Scout: “If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time…it’s because he wants to stay inside.” Jem’s struggle to make sense of the Radley’s cruelty toward Boo and the town’s persecution of Tom Robinson illustrates Lee’s concern with personal and social injustice. She weaves together her dual Themes-the bittersweet movement from childhood to adulthood and the painful awakening of a society to its own ignorance and bigotry-in her depiction of Jem’s maturation.

To Kill a Mockingbird contains many minor Characters who are vividly described. Charles Baker Harris (Dill), the children’s seven-year-old playmate, is an eccentric, imaginative boy. Described by Scout as wearing “linen shorts buttoned to his shirt” and having white hair that “stuck to his head like duckfluff,” Dill makes up fantastic stories about his family in order to hide the fact that his parents are separated and he feels unloved at his mother’s home. Dill instigates many of the children’s dramatic games, including the Boo Radley game. Literary rumor has it that Dill’s character is based on the young Truman Capote, a famous American writer who grew up with Harper Lee.

Most of the adult female Characters play maternal roles in the novel. Calpurnia, the Finches’ housekeeper, maintains calm and order in the household. She is strict but loving with the children, and she helps them understand and respect the black community where she lives. Aunt Alexandria, Atticus’s sister, comes to live with the Finch family in order to exert a bit of “feminine influence” on the children while Atticus is absorbed in the Robinson trial. Her presence creates much tension in the household, for she disapproves of Scout’s tomboyish ways and tries to impose her snobbish, provincial ideas on the family. Miss Maudie Atkinson lives across the street from the Finches. A spry, fair-minded woman, she treats Jem and Scout with grandmotherly concern and adult respect. It is Miss Maudie who explains the significance of Atticus’s statement that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird; she tells the children, “Your father’s right. Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing out their hearts for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” The mockingbird comes to symbolize Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, both of whom are persecuted by the townspeople.

Although Tom Robinson figures prominently in the plot of the novel, his character is one-dimensional. A humble, good-hearted black man, he is the victim of a racist white society. Mayella Ewell also plays a victim. Ignorance, poverty, and abuse at the hands of her father, Bob Ewell, lead Mayella to seek Tom Robinson’s affection; when her overture toward Tom backfires, resulting in her father’s brutal assault on her, she covers her shame and appeases her father by accusing Tom of rape. Bob Ewell plays the villain in the novel; he is a flat but menacing character, portrayed simply as a lawless, loathsome figure of evil.

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