Boo Radley: From Wild Imaginings to True Reality

How in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ the perspective the children have of Maycomb changes overtime through the lens of their beliefs about Boo Radley.

Throughout most of this book, Boo Radley is a mysterious figure who the main character’s Scout and Jem often talk about. Our first glimpse of this character is through their eyes; he is a dark and dangerous man who is stuck inside his family’s house so as to keep everyone outside safe from him. Life is blissful for them and Maycomb is their safe and familiar home. As the story progresses, though, the children begin to experience a different type of Maycomb than they ever have before due to the trial of Tom Robinson. They begin to see the true darkness of the world around them from the actions of the Ewells and the other townspeople in regards to racism, prejudice, and class differences. This change in sight and understanding of the world around them, changes these children’s innocent and naive viewpoint of the world, coalescing in them meeting the real Boo Radley. This essay will explore this change in understanding of the world through the children’s evolving viewpoint of Boo Radley as the story progresses.

It is interesting what the children call Arthur Radley in this story: Boo. To these children, he is a ghost; a phantom who they have never met but are invariably scared of. He is a dark creature that they must do their best to avoid, often putting on airs that they are not afraid of the mysterious man. Every description they give him turns him into something inhuman whether it is his appearance or how violent he is “…Boo drove the scissors into his parent’s leg, pulled them out, wiped them on his pants, and resumed his activities”(11). In their minds, he is this monstrous villain that they try to avoid. There’s even a line in the book connecting Boo to death, further pushing this view of him as a ghost in the children’s eyes: “From the day Mr. Radley took Arthur home, people said the house died.”(12). Boo Radley is a wild tale to the people of the town and to the children, he is the only dark thing about the town itself- the thing they fear the most.

Boo Radley is at the forefront and center of these children’s imaginations. From the fact that he never steps outside his house and the stories they hear from others, the children create wild tales about his life as a dark and dangerous man who “eats raw squirrels and any cat he could catch” and a man who “drooled most of the time”(13). As the audience reaches this part of the book and sees the children goad each other into going and touching the Radley’s house, they begin to get an understanding of just how innocent and naive these children are- that the figure that appears the most in their scary stories is a man who never leaves his house and who they have never met or even seen. They have no actual scary stories of the town in their minds and so, as children do, they make one up about the only member of the town who acts differently. To them, their town is a peaceful place, one that they believe they understand quite well and they are confident in the fact that Boo Radley is the only thing that is different. As the story progresses, though, this belief begins to change.

Throughout this book, all of Boo Radley’s actions in regards to the children are kind and thoughtful gestures, yet to the children each one has a sinister motive behind it. Putting little gifts in the knothole of one of his trees; without knowing it was really from him, they are curious about the little treasures that are left there and are sad the day that the knothole is sealed up. As these gifts continue to be left in the tree, the children continue to act out their game of ‘Boo Radley’ in which Jem “…went under the front steps and shrieked and howled from time to time”(39). But, it is at this time that Scout begins to drift away from the story that the three of them made up as, that day she rolled down in a tire and landed in the Radley’s yard, she heard laughter coming from his house. The fact that laughter would be coming from a ‘dead’ house where a madman lived started to slowly make Scout question the gossip and stories that they heard from the townspeople and the things that the three of them made up.

It is as Scout meets often with Miss Maudie Atkinson that she learns more about Boo Radley: how he was still alive and her ideas about him begin to change. “Arthur Radley just stays in the house, that’s all…Wouldn’t you stay in the house if you didn’t want to come out?”(44); about how it was Arthur’s father who was the true monster in the story, not him. This is further backed by Calpurnia’s words upon the death of Mr. Radley: “There goes the meanest man ever God blew breath into”(12). At this point in the story, Scout’s understanding of Boo Radley as a ghost begins to slowly fall away due to the words of others around her, people that she knows and trusts. Just who is Arthur Radley?

Often as children, it is hard to let go of the stories you create yourself and with your friends, leaving ‘Boo’ still as the villain of the story. When the three of the children sneak around the Radley’s house, they are caught and are shot at- in the rush, Jem leaves his pants behind. When Jem goes to retrieve his pants later, he finds them shakily fixed and folded neatly on the fence. Instead of seeing this as a kind action, the two are scared and creeped out- the audience knows that it was more than likely Arthur Radley who fixed the pants as if Nathan Radley had found them, the children would’ve got in trouble for trespassing. Just after this, they take the twine in the knothole, though are hesitant in taking it until the third day. The audience knows that all of these things are from Arthur Radley, and yet the children do not realize this despite where the tree is and where Jem left his pants- even though Scout is slowly starting to dismantle the stories about Arthur Radley, he is still ‘Boo’ to her, still a mysterious ghost who they are to avoid and fear. This is shown during the fire scene, when someone places a blanket around Scout’s shoulders. When she finds out that it was ‘Boo’ Radley, “My stomach turned to water and I nearly threw up”(72). Jem is focused on the fact that, if she turned around, she could have seen him while Scout is focused on the fact that the ‘monster’ of their stories was so close to her and she had no idea. Despite the events that are occurring, Scout is still determined to see ‘Boo’ Radley as the monster of the story.

As the trial begins to set up, all stories and mentions of ‘Boo’ Radley fade away, as new challenges and dark situations begin to grow in the children’s lives. Atticus receives pushback from the townspeople, Scout begins to realize that the kind Maycomb that she had always believed in wasn’t as nice as she thought it was. Slowly, the danger of ‘Boo’ Radley begins to fade from her mind as she deals with the racism of the other townsfolk, first children her own age and then moving towards the adults. After mentioning ‘Boo’ Radley in almost every chapter, suddenly he is not mentioned again as the trial occurs; the childish scary stories of Jem, Dill, and Scout paling in comparison to the words of Cecil Jacobs, Francis, or Mrs. Dubose. Events like Mrs. Dubose’s death, Aunt Alexandra coming to live with them, Dill’s disappearance, and the preparation for the trial itself began to take over Scout’s focus as she tries to understand the new view of Maycomb that she was gaining: one of strict class status, racial discrimination, angry people, and family distinction.

It is during the mob scene outside the Maycomb jail where Scout’s understanding of the world and the evils that exist in it begin to truly change. As she stood there looking down at the unfamiliar faces that were trying to hurt her father and brother, she “…sought once more for a familiar face, and at the center of the semi-circle I found one. ‘Hey, Mr. Cunningham.’”(153). In this time of tension and fear, Scout was able to touch the humanity of the members of the mob and, after a short speech, the men left. Though no true violence broke out and the Finch family was alright in the end, this scene is a critical part of this book as it is here that Scout’s eyes are truly opened up to the dark world around her, to the evil motives that live in the hearts of all that surround her. It is in this scene that Scout truly begins to grow up; to shake off the old wild imaginings of her childhood and face the real darkness of the world around her, a darkness that truly seems much more threatening than ‘Boo’ Radley ever was.

It is after this awakened mindset that Tom Robinson’s trial begins, Scout watching it as it continues on, her new view beginning to truly evolve and settle in her mind. She watches as Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Atticus sets up a compelling argument for Tom Robinson’s innocence: as to the fact that Mayella was hit by someone left-handed who had apparently raped her(Tom Robinson, she and her father claim), yet Tom’s left arm was destroyed in a cotton gin when he was a child, meaning he can’t have been the one to hit her. There is one line that changes the entire dynamic of the trial, when Tom says, “‘Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of them-’…The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. But the damage was done. Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson’s answer.”(197). This line perfectly explains the racial background to this case- the Ewell’s are the lowest of all white people in Maycomb, yet due to their skin color, they are still seen as better than blacks. So for Tom Robinson, an African-American, to say that he felt sorry for her, rubbed many in the congregation and jury wrong due to their ideas about race and the status of whites over blacks. This section, more than any other, shows the racial biases of this trial and shows how, even though Atticus made quite a compelling argument in favor of Tom’s innocence, he was still found guilty as the jury would believe a white woman’s words over a black man’s words. Jem, Dill, and Scout are sitting up in the African-American section of the courtroom, watching this occurring and beginning to realize just how wrong the beliefs of their own townspeople are, and how dark and terrible these beliefs truly are, shown by how the two of them react when Tom Robinson is found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell.

This disparity between race and the wrongness of their townspeople’s belief about race is further broken down for Jem, Dill, and Scout when the trial is still going on. When they meet Mr. Dolphus Raymond who many in the town see as a white rich drunkard who has a African-American lover and mixed children. When Scout first saw him, she called him an “evil man”(200), showing the stories she had been told by others in the town. Those stories were dismantled as she found out that he didn’t even drink alcohol most of the time, only coke. When Scout asks why he pretends, he says, “It helps folks if they can latch onto a reason…Cry about the simple hell people give other people-without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.”(201) This statement shows about just how ridiculous the townspeople’s belief about race is, that they look down on Mr. Raymond under the guise of it being due to his ‘drunkenness’ when it’s really because of his race, making this whole situation truly illogical and showing Jem, Dill, and Scout just how backwards the beliefs of the other townspeople are.

It is at this point in the story, after the trial, that ‘Boo’ Radley returns to the children’s conversation, and the statement Jem makes shows just how much their beliefs have changed over the course of the book. It is at the end of chapter 23 that the audience comes across one of the most important sections of the book when Jem says, “Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley stayed shut up in the house all this time…it’s because he wants to stay inside.”(227). This is a complete change from what Jem said at the start of the book about ‘Boo’ Radley: about how he was kept inside because he was dangerous, how he was this grotesque monster that hurt the people around him, that hid under the front porch steps and shrieked and howled like a mad animal. After seeing all the darkness manifest itself across Maycomb due to Tom Robinson’s case, all the terrifying stories that they had heard and told about ‘Boo’ Radley faded away as they came to realize that the terrible racial beliefs of the town and what those beliefs could lead to were much more terrifying than anything a man inside his house every day could do.

It is in the culminating end of the story that we truly see the final shift in the changing perspective of the Scout and Jem in regards to ‘Boo’ Radley, when he becomes a man instead of a ‘supernatural figure’. “The Radley Place had ceased to terrify me, but it was no less gloomy, no less chilly under its great oaks, and no less uninviting….I sometimes felt a twinge of remorse, when passing by the old place, at ever having taken part in what must have been sheer torment to Arthur Radley…Maybe someday we would see him.”(242). This is an incredibly important section of the book for various reasons: for one, Scout has finally gotten over her fear of Arthur Radley and realizes that Jem, Dill, and her were the ones in the wrong while playing their games. Another is the fact that, for the first time in the book, she calls him Arthur Radley, not ‘Boo’ Radley. He’s a person to her now, a simple man who just wishes to be left alone and to stay in his house. Also, now that their belief of his being a monstrous thing is gone, she now fully realizes that it was him leaving all of those gifts in the tree. This line later on solidifies this fact, “So many things had happened to us, Boo Radley was the least of our fears.”(243). This line is the crux of this argument; Scout herself has truly grown up and realized the faults in her childhood dreams and imaginings and realizes the truth of the world around her, realizes just how dark the world around her is and how dangerous it could be to people who went against its societal forces and beliefs.

In the end of the book, Jem ends up dismissing much of what he learned in this situation, not able to come to terms with the fact that he was wrong about the outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial, but Scout learns all of this, takes it all in, and continues to evolve. Jem listened to Mr. Raymond’s thoughts about people looking down on African-Americans and not seeing them as people, he dealt with believing that Tom Robinson was innocent and was frustrated when he was found guilty, he realized the truth about Arthur Radley, but in the end when he realized that he could do nothing- absolutely nothing -to stop this disparity from occurring, he chose to turn a blind eye, telling Scout, “I never wanta hear about that courthouse again, ever, ever, you hear me? You hear me? Don’t you ever say one word to me about it again, you hear? Now go on!”(247).

 Jem has seen the darkness of the world around him, but when he realizes that he can’t really do anything to change it, he closes his mind to the situation entirely, not wanting to face the truth. Scout doesn’t do that, though; she realizes the darkness in the world and the fact that she can’t really stop it all from happening, but she still wishes to understand the situation more. This distinction is held up by the fact that Scout is the one that truly gets to see Arthur Radley in the end; Jem is saved by him when Bob Ewell attacks him and Scout, but when Arthur Radley carries him to the house, Jem is unconscious. It is at this point, that both Scout and the audience truly meet Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley: “His face was white as his hands, but for a shadow on his jutting chin. His cheeks were thin to hollowness; his mouth was wide; there were shallow, almost delicate indentations at his temples, and his gray eyes were so colorless I thought he was blind. His hair was dead and thin, almost feathery on top of his head…His lips parted into a timid smile, and our neighbor’s image blurred with my sudden tears. ‘Hey, Boo,’ I said.”(270). A long quotation, but this is such an important part of the book. 

This is the culmination to all that Scout has learned throughout this book. From telling horror stories about ‘Boo’ Radley and playing games where he is this supernatural being, almost an animal in his antics to growing and learning about the world around her and the darkness that it holds to finally meeting the actual man behind the gossip and stories. This is her confirmation for all of her determination in trying to understand the world around her; this is when she comes to realize that ‘Boo’ Radley is an actual person who is not to be feared; this is the person who just saved her life. The conclusion to this event, this reward, is shown when Arthur Radley heads home: “He had to stoop a little to accommodate me, but if Miss Stephanie Crawford was watching from her upstairs window, she would see Arthur Radley escorting me down the sidewalk, as any gentleman would do.”(278) He is no longer ‘Boo’ to her, but is finally now ‘Arthur Radley’, a gentleman who is kind to her and Jem and who saved their lives. She no longer believes any of the gossip that has been spoken, acting as if to prove it all wrong if Miss Crawford was watching, knowing the truth for herself now. Scout has truly grown from an innocent and naive child to a wise and kind young woman.

At the start of this book, Scout and Jem were innocent children living in a peaceful city named Maycomb. The only ‘dark’ part of their lives then was their neighbor, Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley. This man stayed inside his home for years as the townspeople gossiped about his life. Scout and Jem fully believed their words and made up stories about ‘Boo’ Radley eating animals raw, being covered in blood, and acting like an animal. He was the only thing they really feared in their lives. Then, when their father, Atticus Finch, is made the lawyer for the African-American man named Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white girl, their view of the world begins to change. As their father deals with the ramifications of choosing to defend Tom Robinson, Scout and Jem’s blissful view of the world begins to fade away until they are faced with the dark reality of racial discrimination that is alive and strong in their community. As they go through the trial, believing that Tom will be acquitted, they are shocked when the jury believes the white Ewells over the black Tom Robinson. Throughout this trial, they never once mention ‘Boo’ Radley, watching helplessly as their view of fear in life changes. After the trial, they let go of their fear of ‘Boo’ Radley, realizing that they have much more to fear in life than a man that they never have seen or really met. Slowly, ‘Boo’ Radley changes from a ‘supernatural being’ to an actual man who just wishes to stay inside his home and avoid the dark world around him. Jem, in all of these realizations about racism and the darkness of the world, realizes that he cannot do anything to change it and turns his back on the truth he has learned. Scout, on the other hand, realizes the limited power she has, but still continues to learn and evolve. This determination is rewarded in the end of the book when ‘Boo’ Radley saves Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell, carries the unconscious Jem back to the Finches’ house, and Scout gets to meet the man for the first and last time in her life and even escorts him home. Scout has evolved from a naive child to a growing young lady who is beginning to understand the world around her and the darkness that fills it. She is not turning her back on it and instead chooses to embrace the truth so as to better understand the world; knowing that with understanding and knowledge comes triumph over one’s fears.

Works Cited

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books, 2010.