Analysis of Major Characters
Scout – Scout is a very unusual little girl, both in her own qualities and in her social position. She is unusually intelligent (she learns to read before beginning school), unusually confident (she fights boys without fear), unusually thoughtful (she worries about the essential goodness and evil of mankind), and unusually good (she always acts with the best intentions). In terms of her social identity, she is unusual for being a tomboy in the prim and proper Southern world of Maycomb.
One quickly realizes when reading To Kill a Mockingbird that Scout is who she is because of the way Atticus has raised her. He has nurtured her mind, conscience, and individuality without bogging her down in fussy social hypocrisies and notions of propriety. While most girls in Scout’s position would be wearing dresses and learning manners, Scout, thanks to Atticus’s hands-off parenting style, wears overalls and learns to climb trees with Jem and Dill. She does not always grasp social niceties (she tells her teacher that one of her fellow students is too poor to pay her back for lunch), and human behavior often baffles her (as when one of her teachers criticizes Hitler’s prejudice against Jews while indulging in her own prejudice against blacks), but Atticus’s protection of Scout from hypocrisy and social pressure has rendered her open, forthright, and well meaning.
At the beginning of the novel, Scout is an innocent, good-hearted five-year-old child who has no experience with the evils of the world. As the novel progresses, Scout has her first contact with evil in the form of racial prejudice, and the basic development of her character is governed by the question of whether she will emerge from that contact with her conscience and optimism intact or whether she will be bruised, hurt, or destroyed like Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Thanks to Atticus’s wisdom, Scout learns that though humanity has a great capacity for evil, it also has a great capacity for good, and that the evil can often be mitigated if one approaches others with an outlook of sympathy and understanding. Scout’s development into a person capable of assuming that outlook marks the culmination of the novel and indicates that, whatever evil she encounters, she will retain her conscience without becoming cynical or jaded. Though she is still a child at the end of the book, Scout’s perspective on life develops from that of an innocent child into that of a near grown-up.
Atticus – As one of the most prominent citizens in Maycomb during the Great Depression, Atticus is relatively well off in a time of widespread poverty. Because of his penetrating intelligence, calm wisdom, and exemplary behavior, Atticus is respected by everyone, including the very poor. He functions as the moral backbone of Maycomb, a person to whom others turn in times of doubt and trouble. But the conscience that makes him so admirable ultimately causes his falling out with the people of Maycomb. Unable to abide the town’s comfortable ingrained racial prejudice, he agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man. Atticus’s action makes him the object of scorn in Maycomb, but he is simply too impressive a figure to be scorned for long. After the trial, he seems destined to be held in the same high regard as before.
Atticus practices the ethic of sympathy and understanding that he preaches to Scout and Jem and never holds a grudge against the people of Maycomb. Despite their callous indifference to racial inequality, Atticus sees much to admire in them. He recognizes that people have both good and bad qualities, and he is determined to admire the good while understanding and forgiving the bad. Atticus passes this great moral lesson on to Scoutthis perspective protects the innocent from being destroyed by contact with evil.
Ironically, though Atticus is a heroic figure in the novel and a respected man in Maycomb, neither Jem nor Scout consciously idolizes him at the beginning of the novel. Both are embarrassed that he is older than other fathers and that he doesn’t hunt or fish. But Atticus’s wise parenting, which he sums up in Chapter 30 by saying, “Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him,” ultimately wins their respect. By the end of the novel, Jem, in particular, is fiercely devoted to Atticus (Scout, still a little girl, loves him uncritically). Though his children’s attitude toward him evolves, Atticus is characterized throughout the book by his absolute consistency. He stands rigidly committed to justice and thoughtfully willing to view matters from the perspectives of others. He does not develop in the novel but retains these qualities in equal measure, making him the novel’s moral guide and voice of conscience.
Jem – If Scout is an innocent girl who is exposed to evil at an early age and forced to develop an adult moral outlook, Jem finds himself in an even more turbulent situation. His shattering experience at Tom Robinson’s trial occurs just as he is entering puberty, a time when life is complicated and traumatic enough. His disillusionment upon seeing that justice does not always prevail leaves him vulnerable and confused at a critical, formative point in his life. Nevertheless, he admirably upholds the commitment to justice that Atticus instilled in him and maintains it with deep conviction throughout the novel.
Unlike the jaded Mr. Raymond, Jem is not without hope: Atticus tells Scout that Jem simply needs time to process what he has learned. The strong presence of Atticus in Jem’s life seems to promise that he will recover his equilibrium. Although Jem is left unconscious with a broken arm after Bob Ewell’s climactic attack, the fact that Boo Radley unexpectedly comes to his aid and saves him reminds him of the good in people. Even before the end of the novel, Jem shows signs of having learned a positive lesson from the trial; for instance, at the beginning of Chapter 25, he refuses to allow Scout to squash a roly-poly bug because it has done nothing to harm her. After seeing the unfair destruction of Tom Robinson, Jem now wants to protect the fragile and harmless.
The idea that Jem resolves his cynicism and moves toward a happier life is supported by the beginning of the novel, in which a grown-up Scout remembers talking to Jem about the events that make up the novel’s plot. Scout says that Jem pinpointed the children’s initial interest in Boo Radley as the beginning of the story, strongly implying that he understood what Boo represented to them and, like Scout, managed to shed his innocence without losing his hope.