The novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a coming of age story, detailing the maturation of Gem and Scout, and commenting on the loss of innocence, which is a central theme throughout the novel. Growing up in the Jim-Crow era South, Gem and Scout are exposed to a violent racial dynamic, rooted in racial anxieties. This violence is seen throughout the novel, with the criminalization of black male sexuality, and arguably, the criminalization of being black. It is through the bleak imagery and plot that Lee comments on the central theme of a loss of innocence- for the injustices portrayed in the novel are what ultimately result in Gem and Scout’s forced maturation, and their exposure to a violent and cruel cultural dynamic. Keeping consistent with the tone of the novel, the injustices of the court system portrayed are unsettling, and designed to make the reader uncomfortable. These injustices are designed by Lee to make readers uncomfortable, speaking to the grim plot of the novel, and the time period as a whole. It is though the coming of age of Gem and Scout that Lee seeks to make the injustices depicted “okay.” Describing the Boo Radley’s rescue of the children attempts to compensate for the atrocities witnessed throughout the novel, and comments on the fact that Gem and Scout, despite having lost their innocence, are still children. The narrative choice to include this interaction with Boo Radley provides a glimmer of hope, in the face of grim circumstances. The injustices of the legal system, of which Gem and Scout witness first hand, are contrasted with their interactions with Boo Radley, and the childlike innocence he portrays. Despite having lost their innocence, due largely in part to the injustices described, the interactions had in the final few pages of the novel serve to retain some of the Finch children’s innocence. While the racial anxieties towards black male sexuality are dark, the narrative choice to end the novel with figure of innocence attempts to alleviate the tonal and thematic tensions throughout the rest of the novel, and to make the failure of the justice system, while unsettling, seem okay.
3 thoughts on “Coming Of Age”
Nice breakdown here. I’m wondering what the effects of this preservation of childhood innocence are, and perhaps what implications there are for Scout and Jem’s future. How implicated are they in Tom Robinson’s fate? What kind of responsibility (if any) do they bear for righting these kinds of wrongs as they grow up?
It’s an unusual take that Harper Lee is trying to make the terrible injustices in the book seem “okay”. Certainly the story ends on a note of hope rather than despair, but I don’t know if I agree that this is an attempt to make the atrocities seem okay. The book never makes any attempt to paint what happened as acceptable. Atticus, the moral center of the book, struggles against it as hard as he can and the two children we follow through the story are deeply traumatized by it. So it’s interesting that you would read a hopeful ending as an attempt to dismiss the injustice of its events.
Nick, you’re absolutely right that the book takes these injustices very seriously. Structurally, however, the novel finds its way to an at least ambivalently happy ending; we don’t get a tragedy, we get a story that refocuses on Scout and the Finch family romance. That’s not a criticism of the novel, it’s just an observation about what this particular text does and doesn’t do, and there’s a sense in which that turn at the end of the story allows us to walk away feeling hopeful about the future, which is a choice the author made. That’s the feature of the novel I invited reflection on in my discussion question, to which Alec is here responding.