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The Importance of Boo Radley in Relation to the Themes in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is set in a small town in Alabama, U.S.A called Maycomb. Written by Harper Lee this novel depicts prejudice that existed in the thirties. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class. Throughout the novel there are three main themes which are, prejudice which falls into another three categories, racial, social and fear of the unknown. The novel also explores the theme of courage and different examples of family life.

The most reoccurring type of prejudice in this novel is racial prejudice. Tom Robinson’s trial shows how the black people were hated in the town of Maycomb because of their race. Tom is a victim of this type of prejudice,

“The jury couldn’t possibly be expected to take Tom Robinson’s word against the Ewell’s”

This shows how even the highly respected people in the black community, like Tom Robinson, a decent caring man who is also a hard worker are classed lower than the lowest people in the white community, like the Ewells who are hated by everyone and live the most disgusting lives.

Blacks were hated so much that they could not even take pity on a white person, even if that white person is considered extremely low in the white community, so Tom being such a caring person who worked for Mayella for no wage could not take pity on her and in court was not a good reason for Tom to be working for Mayella for no wage. This is shown through Mr Glimer’s emphasis of certain words.

“You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?”

By the reaction of Mr Gilmer the reader can see how odd it was for a black man to feel sorry for a white woman no matter what her class is. Mr Gilmer is appalled at what Tom has said. This was seen as ordinary, to judge a black citizen because in the thirties racism against the black people was very popular.

Another person who is a victim of racial prejudice is Dolphus Raymond. He is victimised because he is married to a black woman. Everyone assumes he is an evil person and has no morals,

“As Mr Dolphus Raymond was an evil man…”

Scout believes everything she has heard about Dolphus Raymond; she believes that he’s drunk all the time and that he beats his wife, but soon finds out what he is really like.

“Scout it’s nothing but Coca-Cola.”

Scout changes her mind about Mr Raymond and discovers that he has morals but doesn’t live according to them. Scout finds out how he is victimised and only pretends to be drunk to keep away from the rest of the town. This is because people do not like the way Dolphus lives. By pretending to be drunk it gives the town a reason for why he lives in this way. People could never understand that he lives like that because he wants to.

The abolition of slavery after the civil war 1865-5 changed the legal position of black people in American society. This freedom initially made life much harder for the black community and black and white people remained segregated in all aspects of life. The black people were not treated equally; they could not use the same buses, toilets or schools as the white people.

Until the second half of the 20th century white people saw black people as potential competitors for jobs, particularly in the hard years of economic depression during which ‘to kill a Mockingbird’ was set.

Aunt Alexandra is one of the characters who had this view of the black people as slaves, she tells Calpurnia to,

“Put my bag in the front bedroom, Calpurnia”

Aunt Alexandra treats Calpurnia as though she is a slave as her ancestors were. Also Aunt Alexandra pauses before she says, ‘Calpurnia’, this indicates that she does not like saying her name, ‘Calpurnia’. The readers know that Calpurnia is more than just a slave, who cooks, to Atticus, Jem and Scout.

The second type of prejudice is social prejudice, people are judged on how they live and act in society and are given classes. Highly classed people are people like Atticus Finch, this is because they live according to the law, live like civilised people, have good jobs and are clean and tidy people. Low classed people are people like Bob Ewell, this is because they do not abide by the law do not have very good jobs and are very dirty and messy and live like animals. A character who runs her life according to these classes is Scout’s Aunt Alexandra. She considers the Cunningham’s to be of a lower class than the Finches, she says,

“You can scrub Walter Cunningham until he shines, you can put him in new shoes and in a new suit, but he’ll never be like Jem”

She believes that no matter how he looks he will still be poor and he will still act as though he is a lower class, she has an attitude of superiority over the Cunningham’s. Because of this social prejudice she or any of the Finches shouldn’t mingle with the Cunningham’s.

Another victim of social prejudice is Boo Radley he is a social outcast in the eyes of the town’s people of Maycomb. People do not know anything about Boo so they assumed he was bad. This is similar to the Dolphus Raymond. Boo Radley being a social outcast is linked to the next type of prejudice, fear of the unknown. Boo Radley is victimised because nobody knows much about him and guess about him.

The Radley’s had been known to keep to themselves, they did not go to church, but worshipped at home. Their history was grim. People heard that Boo Radley was mental and thought that he should be locked up and they had also heard that he stabbed his Father, Nathan Radley in the leg with a pair of scissors and then wiped of the blood on his trousers.

The children believe everything they hear about Boo, Jem describes Boo as,

“six and a half feet tall, judging form his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were blood-stained…a long jagged scar ran across his face, his teeth were yellow rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.”

This was the description that the children gave him without knowing how he really was; they assumed how he looked like because he has been stereotyped by society. The community’s view of Boo Radley was that he was a mental person. Miss Stephanie, the town’s gossip spread the rumours of Boo Radley.

“Miss Stephanie Crawford, the neighbourhood scold, said she knew the whole thing. According to Miss Stephanie, Boo was sitting in the living room cutting some items from The Maycomb Tribune, his father entered the room, and Boo drove his scissors into his leg and pulled them out and wiped them on his trousers and resumed his activities.”

The fear that the town have of Boo because they do not know how he is really like has brought them to the conclusion that they have come up with. This had led the town to assume other things such as the ‘Crazy Addie’ incident.

Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events; people’s chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Baker’s Eddy, people still looked at the Radley place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions. Because of the fact that the town thought Boo was also mental they assumed that these attacks were done by Boo.

An additional person who is a victim of prejudice because of the fear of the unknown is, Dolphus Raymond he is victimised in this situation because the town people are afraid of him, they are afraid of him because they do not know about him. No one likes him because he acts different, but if people knew him they would know that he was only pretending.

Another theme in this novel is ‘courage’. We can recognise several types of courage in this novel.

There is the basic courage required to overcome childish fears, such as running past the Radley place,

“Jem said to Dill that if he wanted to get himself killed, all he had to do was go up and knock on the front door.”

This shows that the children are afraid of the Radley place and that they do not want to go anywhere near because of what they have heard. Jem overcomes his fear and builds up some courage to go and touch the Radley place.

“Jem through open the gate and sped to the side of the house, slapped it with his palm and ran back”.

Jem has the courage to go and touch the Radley place despite the rumours that they have herd by various townspeople of death by the Radley place. If they believed that by touching the Radley place would cause death and by touching it showed the courage that Jem had.

Atticus sees Mrs Dubose as a very courageous woman,

“She is the bravest person I know,”

Atticus knows her struggle in life, drugs keep her alive, Mrs Dubose tries to rid herself of her drug addiction Atticus knows that if she does give up on drugs she will die, in a way, there is no point for her to carry on this struggle but she does and in Atticus’ views she is a very courageous woman.

Atticus tries to teach Jem and Scout this lesson when he says,

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand.”

Atticus tries to teach the children the real meaning of courage, someone like Mrs. Dubose who “fights” to stay alive, not like Bob Ewell. He acts as though he is full of courage, but in actual fact, he is a man with no courage whatsoever. Bob can’t take on Atticus by himself without the townspeople, but tries to take his revenge on Jem and Scout; he can’t even take them out in the open or in daylight, but has to do it in an underhand way.

Another person with a great deal of courage is Atticus Finch. He has to take on the abuse of the townspeople because he is defending Tom Robinson, a Nergo. He takes verbal abuse,

“Nigger lover”

and physical abuse, Bob Ewell spits on him. Atticus, during all this stays calm and carries through the task which is set before him, defend Tom. Atticus does not give in to prejudice as everyone has done, but sticks to his moral view hat everyone is equal, this shows Atticus’ moral courage. Atticus also shows physical courage,

“Jem and I watched our father take the gun and walk out into the middle of the street”

Atticus stands up to the mad dog and it as though Atticus is standing up against prejudice. The mad dog is also used to symbolise the anger of the community.

During the fire at Miss Maudie’s the men of Maycomb show great courage,

“The men of Maycomb, in all degrees of dress and undress, took furniture from Miss. Maudie’s house to a yard across the street.”

This shows how the men, no matter what they were doing they went into the house which was on fire, regardless of whether they catch fire and die or not retrieve Miss Maudie’s furniture.

Miss Maudie also shows courage after her house burns down. She is not at all upset, that her house has burnt down.

“You ain’t griven’ Miss Maudie?”

Miss Maudie shows her courage by not letting the accident get to her and carrying on with her life, she replies by saying,

“Grieving…I hated that house…don’t worry about me’

She was more concerned about her azaleas than her actual house. She says that she will build another house better than any in Maycomb; she is enthusiastic on the situation.

The person who shows most courage, the central character of this essay is Boo Radley. In spite of all the gossip that the people of Maycomb have passed from one another Boo tries to befriend the children. He uses the knot hole in the tree to give little gifts to Jem and Scout,

“Our knot hole stopped us again, something white was inside”.

Boo persists in giving gifts to the children via the knot hole, he shows great courage in doing this because if the children tell anyone he could be attacked by a mob of angry men and women. Nathan Radley, Boo’s father finds out about this potential friendship and tries to put a stop to it, he says,

“Yes, I filled it up”

Nathan tried to put and end to the potential friendship between the children and Boo, Nathan tells Jem that he filled up the knot hole because the tree is dying. Atticus tells Jem different.

“He stood there until nightfall… I saw he had been crying, his face was dirty n the right places”.

Jem was crying because he had realised that Nathan Radley had purposely blocked up the knot hole to prevent friendship between Boo and themselves.

Boo courage is shown again as he continues to befriend the children.

“Boo Radley, you were so busy looking at the fire you didn’t know when he put the blanket around you”.

Atticus told the children that Boo put the blanket around Scout as a sign of friendship, even though Nathan does not ant them to be friends.

Towards the end of the novel (chapter 28) Boo shows physical courage, when Jem and Scout are attacked by Bob Ewell, without a thought in the world, without knowing if he had a weapon or not, Boo Radley came to the rescue! This courage shown by Boo resulted in saving the life of Jem and Scout. It also led to the death of Bob Ewell. Because of Boo’s courage he was able to become friends with Jem and Scout.

The theme of family has a great relevance to this novel. It is a central theme and is constantly reoccurring throughout the novel. Firstly there is the Finch family; they are the first family described in the novel. Originally from Cornwall, they made their way to Alabama USA. The only member of their family that they could trace back was ‘Simon Finch’. He was a wealthy man,

“Simon made a pile practicing medicine”

Because he was a wealthy man he had a good deal of social status, his status would have been passed down through the generations, they are very proud of their name. Aunt Alexandra shows this pride, saying;

“We Finch women aren’t interested in that sort of people”

She is referring to the Cunningham’s. Because of their living conditions and financial problems Aunt Alexandra regarded the Cunningham’s with less class than the Finches. The Cunningham’s eat differently and Scout thinks it’s odd because she has lived a better life than the Cunningham’s.

The Ewell family are totally and utterly opposite to the Finch family, they are the worst regarded family in Maycomb County. Due to the fact that racial prejudice was around in the thirties and black people were hated the Ewell’s are classed above the black people. The Ewell’s are secluded from the rest of the society; their living conditions are the worst and could be due to the fact that they lived behind the town dump. This seclusion could be the cause of Mayella’s yearning for a relationship with Tom Robinson and the way she acts in the court room, she does not have a social life she does not and can not keep in contact with people around the community and her attitude and actions towards Tom are a result of this. Bob Ewell is also allowed to hunt out of season and the Ewell kids only go to school on the first day, they have their own rules because they are outcasts of society.

Unlike Jem and Scout, Dill lacks a male role model in his life. Scout asks Dill where his father was and he replies,

“I haven’t got one”

Dill’s mother and Father are separated and he has been deprived of his childhood, he cannot do all the things that a son does with his father. Dill lies about his father, this could be to comfort himself and because he maybe envious of Jem and Scout.

Another main family is the Radley family, they consist of Boo Radley, his father Nathan Radley an his mother who’s name is not mentioned. The Radley family are feared by the town,

“To climb the Radley front steps and call, ‘He-y’, on a Sunday afternoon was something their neighbours never did”

Because the Radley family are different in what they do and when or how they do it, everyone is scared of them. Everyone assumes that everything they hear about the Radley’s is true because they don’t do what other people do. People are also scared of Boo because,

“Boo was sitting in the living room cutting some items from The Maycomb Tribune… Boo drove the scissors into his parent’s leg, pulled them out, and wiped them on his pants”

Boo has negative family relationships and only has the town to blame because they made him become isolated, people were afraid of him because of his actions and at school the other boys charged at him with disorderly conduct which sent him straight to industrial school. He was not seen again for 15 years.

Atticus Finch and Nathan Radley have completely opposite parenting styles, Atticus is more laid back in the way he treats his children. He does not beat them or shout at them, but teaches them lessons and ways of life. He is one, who uses words rather than beating one of his main teachings is to Scout,

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view”

Atticus tries to teach this to Jem and Scout throughout the novel and he has never disciplined his children like any other parent, with a belt,

“Atticus ain’t ever whipped me since I can remember. I wanta keep it that way”

Atticus’ ethos it seems is to understand your child, talk to them and never use violence, use words rather than actions. He believes in helping his children and not disciplining them when they do wrong.

Nathan Radley is completely opposite; his ethos is to discipline your children with violence or any means necessary,

“Jem figured that Mr Radley kept him chained to the bed for most of the time”

By the way he looked and acted people assumed what, how he disciplined Boo for being with the wrong crowd. Boo had the chance of going to industrial school ad get a good education, but Mr Radley didn’t let him and the only way he could change Boo’s ways and assure the judge that he would not cause any more trouble was with violence.

As soon as Boo Radley is mentioned, Dill has an immediate fascination with trying to make him come out,

“Dill gave us the ideas of making Boo come out”

The Radley place spell bounded Dill in spite of all the warnings that Jem, Scout and Miss Stephanie gave him about the terrors of Boo and the Radley place. Although all the town are afraid or don’t like the Radley’s Dill still wanted to see Boo and get to know him and see how he was really like.

“Someone in the house was laughing”

The children find out that Boo is actually alive and he is watching them from inside the Radley Place. This makes them more curious to make Boo come out and see him.

Making Boo ‘come out’ was a key aim that the children had when Dill came to Maycomb in the summer holidays. They dared each other to knock on the Radley door, and went at night to sneak a look in through the side window.

The children’s attitude to Boo changes later on in the novel. Their first attitude to him is everything they hear about him through the towns people and make their own description of Boo,

“Six and a half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch…there was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped and he drooled most of the time”

This was what the children first thought of Boo’s appearance, this is why it was so important for them to make Boo come out to see whether all the rumours were true. The children saw Boo as a psychotic who only came out at night and killed people by touching them.

This view of Boo slowly changed as the children matured, Scout says,

“I was well into the second grade of school and tormenting Boo Radley became pass�”

This shows that they are growing up and learning that not everything you hear is true, so they became interested in other things like money.

Towards the end of the novel Scout sees Boo as a kind, gentle and heroic person. When Boo saves her from the evil clutches of Bob Ewell, her description of Boo changes,

“his face was white as his hands…his cheeks were thin to hollowness; his mouth was wide; there were shallow almost delicate indentations at his temples, and his grey eyes were so colourless I thought he was blind. His hair was dead and thin, almost feathery on top of his head”

Scout finally realises all the teachings that Atticus tries to teach her throughout the novel, about not judging people once you get to know them, and try to see how life would be if you were in their shoes. Scout makes up her mind on how Boo really is and she will stick to that view of him.

Part one in this novel is fundamentally is the introduction of the characters and the reader learns about them, their attitudes and their characteristics. Part one of the novel is based on Boo Radley. Boo Radley is introduced in a somewhat incomprehensive manner through the eyes of Jem and Scout. Without being seen or heard, the reader, regardless of this still knows much about Boo by gossip from the townspeople and Jem’s imaginative and graphic description of Boo.

“…there was a long jagged that scar that ran across his face…”

Boo’s role in part one is to give the townspeople something to talk about. In part one Boo has a lot against him, he represents the towns prejudice. The children ‘make up’, silly descriptions about him and play a game based on the Radley’s but it is stopped by Atticus. Despite everything Boo still looks over the children when they go out and play.

During the trial scenes in part two, Harper Lee keeps Boo in the readers mind through the similarities that Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell have to Boo. They are all Mockingbird figures in the novel. Tom, Boo and Mayella are victimised in the same way.

Tom and Mayella both have society to blame for the discriminating state that they are in. this is a reminder of how society made Boo the way he is,

“The other boys received the best education to be had”.

If state had sent Boo to school and not with Mr Radley he would have bee like a normal person.

Mayella has negative family relationships,

“When a man spends his relief cheques on green whisky his children have a way of crying”.

She is abused by her father. Bob and Burris Ewell have both been known for behaving ‘like an animal’.

This is reminiscent of Boo and his father, Nathan Radley. Both Boo’s brother and father have been described as being ‘inhuman’, who also behave like animals.

Boo is isolated from society as described on page 15 in the hard back copy,

“The shutters and doors of the Radley house…”

In the same way Mayella isolated from society as described on page 176 in the hard back copy,

“Maycomb Ewells lived behind the town garbage dump…”

When Mayella is talked about in part two the reader is reminded about Boo from part one. This also applies to Tom Robinson and in this way the reader always has Boo in mind.

Throughout part one the children have a sort of ‘duty’ in a sense, to make Boo come out. Dill slowly became fascinated about Boo ever since he is told by Jem about Boo and all he wants to do is make Boo come out. And so the children come up with various schemes for trying to make Boo come out. Finally at the end of the novel when Boo saves the life of Jem and Scout Boo finally comes out and the children’s mission is complete. When Boo finally comes out it gives the reader a feeling that Boo will no longer stay a mysterious figure but will change his lifestyle and will come out and socialize much more. The whole change of lifestyle gives the characters and reader a sense of resolution and completion.

The Mockingbird symbol is the most significant symbol in the novel. This repeated image and its key symbol of an innocent creature make it a strong motif. A Mockingbird is a type of Finch, a small plain bird with a beautiful song which ‘mocks’ or mimics other birds’ songs. The Mockingbird represents this innocence and kindness because it does not harm anyone, it does not make nests in the chimneys nor does it eat the crop, it just sings with a beautiful voice.

The Mockingbird first appears in chapter 10 of the novel, when Atticus tells the children how to use their shotguns,

“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird”.

Scout is surprised to hear Atticus, who is usually non-judgemental calling something a ‘sin’. Miss Maudie Atkinson explains to Scout what Atticus really means, because Mockingbirds are neither harmful nor destructive, and only make nice music for people to enjoy so it’s wrong to kill one.

Tom Robinson symbolises the Mockingbird symbol, having committed no crime and yet being punished simply because of his race.

Tom was killed by the prison guards when attempting to escape from jail. Through his death he is directly linked to the Mockingbird, this is because of Mr Underwood’s description,

“Mr Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting or escaping”.

Tom caused no harm nor was he destructive all he did was work for Mayella out of the goodness of his heart.

It is through the innocence and harmlessness of Boo that he is compared to the Mockingbird. Scout understands through meeting Boo that he is harmless and nothing like what they had first thought of him. Scout is considerate towards Boo and protects him from the comments of Maycomb’s people,

“If Miss Stephanie Crawford was watching from her upstairs window, she would see Arthur Radley escorting me down the sidewalk”.

She protects his pride by making it out as though he was escorting her. Scout no longer refers to Arthur Radley as Boo but as Arthur Radley.

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