Over the course of the novel’s three years, Scout, Dill, and Jem grow up both physically and mentally. They begin the novel with a firm and uncomplicated idea of what’s good and what’s bad, but by the end of the novel, they’ve all lost their innocence and have come to a more complex understanding of how people and the world work. In particular, having Scout, whom the reader meets at age six, narrate the story allows the novel to show clearly how children lose their innocence as they grow—while also using Scout’s innocence to look freshly at Maycomb and her world to criticize its flaws.
Though Scout is a precocious child in a variety of ways, the novel also goes to great lengths to comically demonstrate how innocent and unaware Scout is of the world around her. For example, she believes Jem’s unfounded claim that the teaching method Miss Caroline promotes is called the Dewey Decimal System—in reality, a system of organizing a library—and referring to her and Jem’s snowman as an “Absolute Morphodite” in such a way that betrays that she has no idea what “morphodite” actually means (a hermaphrodite, a plant or animal with both male and female sex organs). The children also firmly believe, for the first year of the novel, that Boo Radley is a zombie-like figure who eats small mammals or, possibly, is dead and stuffed up the chimney of the Radley house. While undeniably humorous to the reader, who’s likely aware that these notions are ridiculous and incorrect, the beliefs themselves function as a window into just how youthful and innocent Scout, Jem, and Dill truly are.
The children’s innocence, as represented by these instances of misunderstandings or far-fetched superstitions, isn’t always entirely humorous, however. Particularly once Scout begins attending school, the novel suggests that even though children may be prone to this kind of nonsense and far-fetched storytelling, they’re still innately able to recognize the ridiculousness of the adult world around them, and in particular, the ineffectiveness of the school system. Scout’s precocity and intelligence means that when she enters the first grade, she already knows how to read and write, both printing and cursive—something that her teacher, Miss Caroline, finds threatening and offensive for seemingly no real reason, and even punishes Scout for. In this sense, Scout begins to see that the adult world is just as nonsensical as the reader can see that Scout’s childhood world is—though the adult world is one that forces growing children to conform and fall into line, rather than one that relies on imagination and individuality. With this, Scout is encouraged by Atticus to understand that while she may one day have to enter the world of adults and grow up, the path to get there is one on which she’ll have to fight constantly for her individuality. As the novel wears on and Scout witnesses terrible cruelty and injustice, it also suggests that she’ll also have to fight hard to maintain her sense of compassion, right, and wrong.
Mr. Gilmer’s interrogation of Tom Robinson is a wakeup call for the children, and their reaction to Robinson’s the trial suggests that although children can be naïve, they are often more perceptive and compassionate than the supposedly mature adults around them. Dill, in particular, is angered and overcome by the rude and racist way that Mr. Gilmer speaks to Robinson. Outside the courthouse, Mr. Raymond, a man whom Scout previously thought was an evil drunk, suggests that Dill only has the reaction he does because he’s a child—as children grow, he suggests, they lose their capacity to cry over injustices like Robinson experiences, as they learn to conform to adult rules of polite society that forbid reactions like that (and for white people like Scout and Dill, also discourages that kind of compassion directed toward black people in the first place). Mr. Raymond is, notably, an outsider in Maycomb, as he’s white and yet lives with his black girlfriend because he wants to, a choice that’s unthinkable to even someone like Scout. It’s because of his outsider status that he’s able to make these observations and confirm for Dill that what’s happening to Robinson is awful—though it’s still possible, he suggests, that Dill will one day “fall into line” and conform to the hatred around him. Later, Atticus echoes Mr. Raymond when he tells an angry and tearful Jem that juries have been wrongfully convicting black men for years, will continue to do so, and that only children cry when it happens—another indicator that children, who are more unencumbered by social codes and pressure to fit in, are innately able to pick up on injustices like this. The hope, the novel suggests, is that they’ll be able to maintain this ability to look at the world in this way once they enter the adult world and face pressures to conform and bury their sense of right and wrong.
Tom Robinson’s trial represents the end of an era of blissful innocence for both Scout and Jem. Jem in particular struggles to understand how such a thing could’ve happened, a thought process that Atticus suggests simply reflects where Jem is in his development—at 13, Jem understands better than Scout how the case unfolded, which makes it more difficult in many ways for him to deal with. While the novel doesn’t resolve Jem’s angst and inability to wrap his head around what happened, it does offer hope that both he and Scout will be able to maintain their moral compasses, as well as their compassion, into adulthood. Scout’s major coming-of-age moment happens as she stands on the Radley porch and, as Atticus has instructed her to do at several points, "climb[s] into [Boo Radley's] skin.” She’s able to understand, through this, that Boo may be very different from her in a variety of ways, but he’s still a compassionate, self-sacrificial neighbor who’s worthy of respect and kindness. This leap in understanding suggests that as Scout continues to grow and develop past the novel’s close, she will be able to maintain her belief in what’s morally right, even as she loses her innocence and moves toward adulthood.
Growing Up ThemeTracker
Growing Up Quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird
After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myself to a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn't fight any more, her daddy wouldn't let her.
Dill's eyes flickered at Jem, and Jem looked at the floor. Then he rose and broke the remaining code of our childhood. He went out of the room and down the hall. “Atticus,” his voice was distant, “can you come here a minute, sir?”
Beneath its sweat-streaked dirt Dill's face went white. I felt sick.
Jem was standing in a corner of the room, looking like the traitor he was. “Dill, I had to tell him,” he said. “You can't run three hundred miles off without your mother knowin'.”
We left him without a word.
“Well how do you know we ain't Negroes?”
“Uncle Jack Finch says we really don't know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain't, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin' the Old Testament.”
“Well if we came out durin' the Old Testament it's too long ago to matter.”
“That's what I thought," said Jem, “but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black.”
“The way that man called him 'boy' all the time an' sneered at him, an' looked around at the jury every time he answered— … It ain't right, somehow it ain't right to do 'em that way. Hasn't anybody got any business talkin' like that—it just makes me sick.”
“They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep.”
[Jem] was certainly never cruel to animals, but I had never known his charity to embrace the insect world.
“Why couldn't I mash him?” I asked.
“Because they don't bother you,” Jem answered in the darkness. He had turned out his reading light.
A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing-pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.
It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose's [...] Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day's woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.
Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.
Summer, and he watched his children's heart break. Autumn again, and Boo's children needed him.
Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
“When they finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…” His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.