takes place around the mid-1900s sets up a realistic background for the racial events that occur in the story. Throughout the novel, there is a definite tension to be recognized among different classes and cultures of people. Since the main character, Scout Finch, has a father who is directly amidst this tension and aggression because of his profession, she is forced to accept reality and mature faster than may have otherwise been necessary. Trying to right the wrongs of the justice system in Maycomb County is what sets this family in the spotlight. As a young girl growing up in an old, traditional southern Alabama town, Scout is subjected to a number of learning experiences that carry her to an age of maturity by the end of the novel.
Maycomb, the county seat of Maycomb County, is a very quiet, southern town where things have continued in the same fashion for years and years. It is a “tired, old town” with a desire for peace and stability (5). Scout, who is also the narrator, describes how slowly and nonchalantly the people move from place to place. “They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything” (5). From this description it is easy to see why the remark was made that “Maycomb County had nothing to fear but fear itself” (6). However, the quiet, delicate atmosphere was about to change.
There was a black man named, Tom Robinson, who was to be put on trial for raping a white woman. The color of their skin, seemingly insignificant, was far from being so. Being that this county was old and rich in tradition, it carried on the prejudices that had long ago been established by the inhabitants’ descendants. After observing her surroundings for awhile, Scout makes a comment to her neighbor, Maudie Atkinson in regards to this. “The folks on our street are all old. Jem and me’s the only children around here” (90). Since most of them are old, they are very set in their ways and not likely to accept change. With the exception of a few residents, they all maintain the same attitude towards black people. This attitude is demonstrated numerous times throughout the book. There have been many rumors spread about a man named Boo Radley, one of Scout’s other neighbors. When Miss Maudie is questioned by Scout about these rumors she responds, “That is three-fourths colored folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford” (45). Another example of this prejudice is when Francis, Scout’s antagonizing cousin, makes a remark about her father, Atticus. “but now he’s turned out a nigger-lover we’ll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb agin. He’s ruinin’ the family, that’s what he’s doin'” (83). Atticus is assumed to be a “nigger-lover” because he is a lawyer and was assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man. After witnessing the injustices and prejudices of the townspeople Scout’s older brother, Jem, starts to come to a conclusion about Boo Radley, a man who never leaves his house. He says, “I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this timeit’s because he wants to stay inside” (227). Jem is implying that it is to get away from the injustice and corruption of the town and the world in general.
Because Scout is forced to deal with the prejudice and injustice, Atticus tries very hard to teach her lessons that will help her with this. These very important lessons often result from insignificant events, but they are helpful in dealing with events that occur later. One of Scout’s most important experiences is learning how to have respect for individualities of human beings. She first learns this lesson when she begins school. Scout has been able to read for quite some time because she always looked over her father’s shoulder when he read. However, in her first grade class, the teacher does not expect her to be able to read yet and, in fact, does not want her to. She has a new teaching method, and Scout seems to be ruining it for her. This situation causes much tension between the two, and Scout begins to hate school and her teacher, Miss Caroline. At six years of age, she cannot comprehend why she should not be allowed to read. She is also mad that Miss Caroline does not understand some of the families of Maycomb and what they are like. Atticus tries to provide some consolation by saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” (30). Though this provides no explanation for Scout as to the way her teacher acts, it makes her aware of the need to be understanding. She resolves the issue enough to say, “We could not expect her to learn all Maycomb’s ways in one day, and we could not hold her responsible when she knew no better” (30).
Scout uses her father’s advice to cope with other situations as well. Because of the Tom Robinson case, she is subjected to frequent insults from her classmates in regards to her father. Scout engages in a few fights after listening to her father being classified as a “nigger-lover.” She doesn’t quite understand what this means exactly, but she knows it cannot be good. Atticus worries about her and her temper because he knows the trial is only going to get worse. “Scout’s got to learn to keep her head and learn soon” (87). Scout tries to obey her father and his advice because she doesn’t want to let him down. One day in school, after being provoked to the point of fighting, she says, “I drew a bead on him, remembered what Atticus had said, then dropped my fists and walked away” (76).
One of the last major ways she learns to have respect for the individualities in human beings is through Boo Radley. Scout, Jem, and Dill, their friend, have had an obsession with this unusual man for a couple of years. Since Boo never leaves his house, they have never seen him and are extremely curious as to what he is like. All they know is the rumors they’ve heard. Throughout their early childhood, they made numerous attempts to try to see him or coax him out of his house. The attempts never worked. Atticus warned them many times that they were interfering with his privacy, and he should be left alone. Although, the children had a hard time doing this, Scout one day begins to feel guilty about what they had done. “I sometimes felt a twinge of remorseat ever having taken part in what must have been sheer torment to Arthur Radley” (242). She is beginning to grow up and realize the immaturity of her previous acts.
Though Scout encounters many learning experiences, there are two more to accompany the first as the most significant ones. The second one is that courage is manifested in ways other than physical acts. For young children, courage is most often associated with some apparent physical act that involves personal danger. However, Scout learns that the greatest courage can be found in a situation where a person knows that he is going to lose and still continues to fight the battle. To introduce the courage theme, an event involving a physical act is described. One day, a mad dog is spotted walking down the Finch’s street. Atticus and the sheriff are called to take care of the situation. Atticus becomes the one responsible for taking care of the problem. He ends up having to draw very near to the dog and shoot him before he charges. Atticus succeeds and is seen in a new light by his children, especially Scout. Earlier in the chapter, Scout was beginning to believe Atticus was too old to do anything anymore except work. It’s as if she gains a new sense of respect for him after this incident, but it is not the last time she admires his courage.
In a less noticeable way, Atticus is later able to display his courage through more emotional and less dangerous means. By becoming Tom Robinson’s lawyer, he is fighting against insurmountable odds. He knows he will lose the case but continues to fight, nonetheless. He explains to Scout, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win” (76). Atticus’ courage is also seen when standing outside the jail alone facing a group of angry townspeople ready to lynch Tom Robinson. There is a contrast between two opposing forces. There is a mob with many guns against one man with no gun. Scout is able to witness this and see how brave her father really is.
Scout also witnesses the courage of an old woman, Mrs. Dubose, who is trying to break a morphine addiction before she dies. The sad part is that Scout doesn’t realize this until she has already passed away. Scout was never able to understand why Mrs. Dubose was so mean and vindictive or why she seemed to have strange fits after Scout and Jem had been there awhile. After she died, Atticus explained to the children what had actually been happening. Mrs. Dubose knew she was going to die but was determined to die free from the narcotic that had sustained her life. She wanted to go “beholden to nothing or nobody.” Atticus said, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what” (112). Scout uses these instances to try to be courageous in her own life. Instead of fighting the people that insult her father, she withstands the insults and opposing opinions; she learns to fight with her head instead of with her fists.
The final significant learning experience that Scout incurs is the effect that prejudices had on justice. Since prejudice is something that has to be taught, it is one of the most difficult things to understand especially to children who have not been exposed to it. Atticus raised Scout and Jem to respect all people regardless of their color. This is evident by the close relationship that develops between Scout and Calpurnia, the black cook. Calpurnia even takes the children to her Negro church one day. That is why it is so hard for them to understand why Tom Robinson is found guilty even though it was obvious to everyone that he is innocent. Atticus agrees with the children in the fact that he also believes justice is not prevailing. “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into the jury box” (220). Scout not only witnesses prejudice taking place in the courtroom but in school as well.
When speaking of the meaning of democracy in school one day, Scout defined it as being “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” (245). The teacher, Mrs. Gates, agreed and began to talk about the unfair treatment of the Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Yet, Scout recently had heard Mrs. Gates speaking of Tom Robinson outside the courthouse, remarking that it was “time somebody taught ’em a lesson” (247). Scout was confused and questioned Jem about her teacher. “How can you hate Hitler so bad and’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home-” (247). In her own innocence, she was able to expose the hypocrisy among the adults of whom she was supposed to look up to.
By this point in the novel, Scout’s maturation is very evident. Along the way, she has been taught some important lessons and discovered many on her own besides the three previously mentioned ones. Her final and most important discovery occurs at the end of the novel and involves Boo Radley, the man that has remained a mystery for so long. Though he has been secretly helping the children throughout the story, his identity is exposed when he ends up saving their lives. The children meet him for the first time and later Scout says, “Atticus, he was real nice” (279). There is a debate over whether he should be put on trial because when he saved the children’s lives, he ended up taking the life of the man who was trying to kill them. Scout realizes even before Atticus how big of a mistake this would be. She replies that it would be like killing a mockingbird – or intentionally harming someone innocent who is ultimately harmless.
By the end of the story, Scout has developed from a girl who wants to torment a stranger to a person who understands the nature of her neighbor. She realizes the disastrous effects that would occur by bringing Boo Radley to trial. When Scout is asked to walk him home, she stands on his porch remembering what Atticus had told her a long time ago. “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (279). She said, “Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” The final realization of her maturity occurs when she, herself, discovers how much she has learned and changed. “As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra” (279).
The way that Scout was able to mature was through her own experiences but also with the help of her family members. Scout would not have been able to overcome her difficult times without her family. She grew up with good morals and a sense of right and wrong. Atticus taught her many things, but the author places a great deal of emphasis on his idea of respecting other individuals. The story centers on faults in human nature that everyone possesses in some manner. However, Lee is trying to point out that even though humans are not perfect, there are people who are always willing to lend a helping hand or be a guide. These include family members, friends, and even people one hardly knows as in the case of Boo Radley. She is also trying to make people aware of what prejudice and injustice can do so maybe everyone will be a little more attuned to what may result from their own actions.