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Childhood in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”

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Within chapters one to eight in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Harper Lee truly pinpoints the essence of childhood between Scout and her ubiquitous childhood friends, Jem and Dill. Scout’s (Jean Louise Finch) demeanour is that of a rebellious tomboy with a fierce attitude and an enquiring nature. She is extremely intelligent judging from the fact that she learned to read before starting school. However, her role as a girl does not seem to fit within Maycomb’s prudish society as Atticus allows her to go round dressed in overalls and playing outside with the boys. Scout’s freedom to be able to dress as she likes and act as children are intended to rather than being restricted to activities a “girl should do” has given her an open-mind and a free spirit which are some of the qualities she possesses.

Her older brother Jem, (Jeremy Finch) on the other hand, possesses a more reserved attitude and is Scout’s constant guide and support. Though as the novel progresses he undergoes the transition that is adolescence and spends more time away from Scout in order to have his space.

The fact that Jem and Scout originate from a one-parent family does not appear to affect the children greatly as Atticus plays a wise and caring father who aims to bring up his children in the best possible way he can. However, Calpurnia does adopt the role of mother and also raises the children and offers them guidance.

During the first chapter the two siblings encounter Dill, the “pocket Merlin” bursting with wild and fanciful ideas that conceal his own troubled family life. Although a puny specimen of a boy he is “little but old” as the pressure of his turbulent family life causes him to create such a vivid imagination for himself that substitutes his loneliness.

Told through Scout’s perspective and a child’s innocent wide-open gaze the story unfolds into a rather quaint portrayal of what it really means to grow up – soaring imaginations, carefree days and exciting childlike adventures. Jem and Scout’s misadventures suggest an idyllic childhood tarnished only by the rules of their beloved servant, Calpurnia; the standards imposed on them by their prim Aunt Alexandra; and the particularities of their neighbours, Miss Maudie Atkinson and Mrs. Dubose.

The boredom shrouding Maycomb leads the children to amuse themselves in other ways as they occupy bored and lazy summer days with imaginative games. Their attention eventually shifts to the Radley house and the ambiguous “Boo” Radley. Although Boo poses no harm to anyone an air of menace is still associated with Boo and the slanderous gossip of the neighbourhood ladies would surely have cultivated their impression of Arthur Radley as the “bogeyman” figure that every child at some stage fears the most.

The journey taken by a child into the wide world involves a great deal of learning about life itself and as yet, the children have not realised that Boo Radley may be just as ordinary as any other person within the neighbourhood but their prejudice towards him is utterly nave. The torrent of emotional abuse that Arthur “Boo” Radley must have undergone is unimaginable to the children and their prying natures and superstitions linked to Boo are merely seen by them as curious and rather risky fun. Yet their view towards Boo would be sharply altered at the end of the novel where he saves them from Bob Ewell quashing their original prejudices against Boo.

Scout and Jem do not only learn about friendships, school and the everyday world around them but they also gain a different perspective of their father. Through their innocence as children they believe their father to be “feeble” and useless at doing all the manly things that other children’s fathers do, yet do not see the qualities that Atticus possesses as a father. He educates them in the best possible way in order for them to grow up without prejudice and he is committed to instilling his strong sense of morality and justice upon the children so that they may understand why he is defending a black man. However, he does have a few hidden talents that his children would be proud of, as witnessed when he shoots the rabid dog – Tim Robinson. The children treat this act with sheer awe and their father, in their eyes as children, is proven not to be just an old man who sits at home and reads.

Apart from the mainly blissful childhood experienced by Jem and Scout there is another childhood in Maycomb; one surrounded by hardship and poverty, as experienced by children such as the Cunninghams and Ewells. These youngsters have been exposed to the harshness of life at such an early age that even school poses no excitement or ambition within them.

Although the Finches are relatively well-off compared to most other families within the area, the social class of Maycomb society does not seem to be an issue with the Finch children as Jem invites Walter Cunningham round for dinner. Their Aunt Alexandra would think it ghastly to invite people of such low class but Jem’s act shows truly shows his friendship and kindness towards other children regardless of how poor they are.

Later on in the play when the children realise just how cruel the course of “justice” can be, with the conviction of Tom, their original innocence and naivety captured perfectly alters into a more mature perspective. They avoid being swept into the tragedy of Maycomb’s ignorant ‘disease’ and have the ability to see the goodness in people no matter who they are.

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