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To Kill a Mockingbird Character Analysis
Get to know all of Harper Lee's characters in this detailed analysis and the example essays.
Atticus’ name has both Greek and Roman connotations- suggesting history and culture, a man in Miss Maudie’s words who is “civilized in his heart.” He has to take an unpopular stand in his home town, “though related by blood or marriage to nearly every family.” He tells Scout that, “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,” despite knowing that these high principles endanger his children as well as himself. His determination to defend Tom Robinson properly stems from his strong sense of empathy. He tells Scout that you can’t understand people “until you climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.” This capacity for understanding makes him a very good parent who always explains things to his children, even difficult issues like rape. This capacity is tested when he underestimates the loathing of Bob Ewell and the threat that he represents to Atticus’s children. Nevertheless, Atticus takes a case that he knows he can’t win because no one else will do it and he knows it’s the right thing to do, saying, “if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town.”
Scout is the narrator. She tells the story when she’s an adult, looking back as a child, aged between 5 and 8. She describes things that she doesn’t fully understand, such as her love for Dill and her innocent, but crucial intervention outside the jail. This enables Harper Lee to re-create the world of childhood. We also see Scout as the victim of verbal abuse from other children when her father decides to defend Tom, and this nearly leads to her murder. She is something of a
Jem is four years older than Scout. He has a much clearer idea of what the Tom Robinson case will involve. He senses danger when Atticus waits outside the jail. Scout is appalled when Jem reports the runaway Dill to his father, but this is a sign of his increasing maturity. He also works out long before his sister that it is Boo who is leaving gifts for them and that Boo is a harmless, pitiful figure, not a monster. Atticus is anxious that his son should learn “what real courage is,” and Jem understands why his father has never boasted about his skills with guns. His naivety and idealism make him assume that Tom will be found not guilty. Atticus praises his “reasoning process” but reason isn’t enough against Bob Ewell and Jem ends up with the same injured arm as Tom - a mark he carries into his adult life, where the story ironically begins.
Boo is the principal “mockingbird” of the story. Because he has become a recluse, stories circulate about him as a kind of monster. His nickname suggests someone who might pop up in a fairy story! In fact, as Miss Maudie tells the children- he is the victim of a “sad house” and its family. When asked if Boo is crazy, she replies: “If he’s not he should be by now.” Boo’s youthful misbehaviour appals his family so much they make him a virtual prisoner in his own house. Boo responds to the interest the children show in him because he craves the love and affection that his family have never provided. He remains a mysterious presence throughout the book, seemingly forgotten for long periods. His reappearance, when he saves the children from Bob Ewell, shows that he has always kept watch over them. As Scout movingly observes: “summer and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.” The moment when Scout finally recognises who has saved them is powerfully emotional: “...our neighbour’s image blurred with my sudden tears. ‘ Hey, Boo,’ I said.” But Boo is too damaged to return to normality. Scout thinks, “We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.” In truth the reader knows they gave Boo what no-one else was willing to offer.
Although Mayella Ewell falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape, she too is a victim, a “mockingbird.” She lives in terrible poverty behind the town garbage dump, a surrogate mother to numerous Ewell offspring. It’s even hinted at the trial that her father sexually abuses her. Mayella’s red geraniums in the Ewell yard show that she aspires to something better. Unfortunately, this leads to her pursuit of Tom Robinson. Racism distorts relationships, and so Mayella presumes that Tom, a married man, must respond sexually to her. In this society there can be no equality between black and white. When Mayella is discovered with Tom by her father, she goes along with the lie of “rape” to cover up the fact that “she did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man.” Atticus’s questioning exposes her friendless, emotionally deprived, poverty-stricken existence, and Scout observes- “she must have been the loneliest person in the world. She was even lonelier than Boo Radley, who had not been out of the house in twenty-five years.”