Children are usually considered unreliable narrators for books, because they do not understand the world around them as an adult would. Yet the advantage of a precocious narrator is that a child can question society in a way that an adult won’t. Adults often look at society and say, "That’s...
Children are usually considered unreliable narrators for books, because they do not understand the world around them as an adult would. Yet the advantage of a precocious narrator is that a child can question society in a way that an adult won’t. Adults often look at society and say, "That’s just the way things are," when children look at the world and say, "Why do we allow this injustice to go on?" They are not content to continue the status quo. So it is with Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Through her eyes, the reader sees the injustice of racism very clearly.
Why did we as society allow segregation for so long? The reasons were not persuasive. Some people are better than others, we were told. Children must have thought that was poppycock, an evasion, as Atticus said. Because of this, Atticus decides to be honest with his children, raising them in a straightforward manner (most of the time). For example, when Scout tells Atticus that most people feel that he should not be taking Tom Robinson’s case, he tells her that he has to live with himself, and gives her some good advice.
“[Before] I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." (Ch. 11)
Atticus is honest with Scout most of the time, even when it comes to adult matters like race. He realizes that she can’t escape the issue of the trial.
This is not to say that Atticus doesn’t evade. Look at his definition of rape when Scout asks.
He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent. (Ch. 14)
If that’s not evasive, I don’t know what is. However, I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to try to explain rape to a girl Scout’s age either.
Another good example of the benefit of a child narrator is seen at the trial, when Scout describes Dill and Jem’s reaction to the trial. She does not fully understand what is going on, but the reader does. Dill vomits because he can’t handle the way Tom Robinson is patronized by the prosecution, and Jem is horrified by the verdict. In each case, Scout is too young to fully understand what is going on, but old enough to realize that she is seeing the effects racism has on kids, and not adults.
The only adult who is honest about racism, other than Atticus, is Mr. Dolphus Raymond. He is ostracized by the white community because he married a black woman and had children with her. He pretends to be drunk so that the community has an understanding of his odd behavior. He explains it to the children though, because they are young enough to understand.
"Some folks don't- like the way I live. Now I could say the hell with 'em, I don't care if they don't like it. I do say I don't care if they don't like it, right enough- but I don't say the hell with 'em, see?" (Ch. 20)
This kind of honesty toward a child, or about race, is rare. It shows that not everyone in Maycomb is a racist. Raymond feels that the more forward-thinking individuals are the children. He knows that Dill is one of them, because the treatment of Tom literally made him sick.
It is true, what Atticus tells Jack, that children know when you are not telling them them the truth. They know when society is selling them a bill of goods too. Scout, Dill, and Jem are aware that the reasons for racism do not hold up. This is the reason Lee chooses a child to tell her story.