To Kill a Mockingbird Literary Analysis

Anxiety. Apprehension. Restlessness. These are the feelings one usually gets on the first day at a new school, when traveling to a new location, or when meeting someone for the first time. Throughout the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the children continuously encounter uncomfortable circumstances which force them to find meaning by interpreting information and educating themselves. Harper Lee uses the children and their experiences to show that irrational beliefs and fear of the unknown can be eliminated by education and knowledge.

Without evidence, the children initially blame unfortunate occurrences on the unknown. Lee opens the novel with the children attempting to find logic and reason for the events leading to Jem’s broken arm and subsequent deformity. Scout and Jem debate whether the accident occurred because of the encounter with the Ewells or because of Dill’s suggestion of coaxing Boo Radley out of his house. The compulsion by the children to illogically blame misfortune and tragedy on unfounded beliefs and superstition reoccurs throughout the novel. They also allow gossip and their imaginations to reinforce their fear of the unknown. This is evident when Miss Stephanie Crawford, the neighborhood “scold,” reinforces the children’s fear with an unsubstantiated account of Boo’s violence with a pair of scissors.When Dill, who is endlessly drawn to and fascinated by Boo and the allure of the Radley Place, asks Jem what he thinks Boo looks like, we see a child’s vivid imagination at work: “Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. 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”.

Because Jem has never seen Boo Radley, he combines rumors, gossip, and his own lack of knowledge to concoct the worst description imaginable.

Due to their age, the children are confined to safe boundaries and fearful of the “unknown entity” beyond. They have limited mobility and are unfamiliar with the world outside of Maycomb County, which had recently been told that it had “nothing to fear but fear itself” Their summertime boundaries are Mrs. Dubose two doors north, and the Radley Place three doors to the south. Both boundaries are described as gray, uninviting places with a “malevolent phantom” in one and Mrs. Dubose, who is “plain hell,” in the other. Harper Lee uses the color gray to symbolize mystery, uncertainty, and fear of the unknown in the children’s otherwise black and white world. The gray Radley estate with its rotted shingles and “slate-gray yard,” the “gray,” aged Mrs. Dubose, and Dill’s copy of the fictional Gray Ghost, all contribute to the children’s anxiety and sense of confusion about the world around them.The children’s sense of curiosity and wonder, their need to gain knowledge, compels them to conquer their fears by leaving their innocent, safe world, crossing the boundaries, and entering the “gray” world where the “gray ghosts” reside and answers are found.

As the events of the novel unfold, the children are forced by fate to enter the gray world and distinguish the difference between what they have been “taught” by others about morality and what they have learned through their own experiences. As the children learn more about Boo, with the discovery of the items in the tree knothole and the unexpected return of Jem’s newly sewn pants, for example, their irrational fears begin to diminish as true knowledge triumphs. Similarly, when Jem is forced by Atticus as punishment to read to Mrs. Dubose, he learns that she is not the gray, old women from Hell the children had imagined. In the final chapter, as the dramatic events conclude and Scout finds herself face to face with Boo, all her insecurities and “gray” fears melt away as she recognizes that Boo is a kind, decent human being, and indeed, her protector. And just before Atticus tucks her securely in her warm blanket, Scout’s educational transformation now complete, she realizes that “nothin’s real scary except in books” as Atticus softly reads a passage from The Gray Ghost.

Throughout the book To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee uses the children’s experiences to show that superstition and fear of the unknown can be eliminated by education and knowledge. The children, like all of us, embark on a journey through life in which they are forced to leave their black and white comfort zones and sort through the gray areas to determine for themselves whether their actions and beliefs are moral in a civilized society. Through their individual experiences, and with the guidance and wisdom of their father Atticus, they learn that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird and that one never knows another unless he stands in his shoes and walks around in them.

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