Is Heck Tate right to spare Boo the publicity from an inquest in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The title of Harper Lee's only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, refers to one of the key themes of the story. Both Atticus and Miss Maudie warn the Finch children that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. Miss Maudie explains why:

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

She is, of course, referring literally to the bird; however, this definition is equally applicable to several figurative "mockingbirds" in the novel. The most obvious example is Tom Robinson, as he did nothing but try to help a girl, Mayella Ewell, because he knew her circumstances were quite terrible. Another example, of course, is Arthur "Boo" Radley.

Boo is tormented, whether he knows it or not, by gossip and stories and plays and whatever other forms fear of the unknown take. Jem, Scout, and Dill are guilty, as are many of the townspeople, including Miss Stephanie Crawford who helps spread lies about him in the form of salacious (and ridiculous to everyone but gullible children) gossip.

In fact, Boo has done nothing but do helpful and kind things: give gifts to the children, repair Jem's torn overalls, laugh (instead of getting angry) at their rude antics, put a blanket over Scout's shoulders during a fire, and more. His final beneficent act is saving the lives of the Finch children. He does nothing to hurt anyone and asks for nothing in return for his kindnesses. He could be considered a mockingbird.

Perhaps this is a controversial view, but I do not believe Atticus and Heck Tate should have spared Boo Radley the trial--even though the result (his innocence) was inevitable. In every other way, Atticus is an upstanding man, even willing for his son to go to court for the same act he discovered Boo committed. It just does not seem consistent with his character to completely thwart the law in this way, despite his compassionate motive for doing so. 

The same is true of Heck Tate. He is a sheriff whose job it is to uphold the law. Though it is not likely that he would use his own judgment, rather than the law, as his standard in other instances, what someone is willing to do once is a signal of what he might do again. His motives are pure, but what if they were not?

As a general principle, society is not better off when lawyers or law enforcement officials ignore the law for any reason, even to spare a "mockingbird." 

Be sure to refer to the excellent eNotes sites I  have attached below for further analysis on this classic novel.

fhs45 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Absolutely!  On the surface, Heck is correct in saying that the "publicity" that would follow would do more harm than good.  Putting Boo in the spotlight would absolutely shatter him.  Honestly, it might kill him.  His reclusive ways are a part of his life.  He wouldn't simply change or adjust if he had to encounter people or physical contact on an everyday basis.

On a deeper level, the morals and messages promoted by Lee in this novel play such a large role.  Modesty and being humble are character traits that are glorified.  Look at Atticus. After reading this story people want to emulate Atticus.  He's the perfect role model.  He's the kind of parent we all want to be.  With regard to Boo, he saved the children, not out of selfish ambition, but because it was the right thing to do, even if it meant Bob Ewell had to die.  He doesn't want recognition. He doesn't want credit for it.  Lee wants us to do what's right.  So when Heck Tate doesn't pursue the charges or deliver the truth to the public, he's doing exactly what Lee endorses.  It was the right thing to do.

amysor | Student

In my opinion, I do agree with Hack Tate sparing Boo the publicity of killing Bob Ewell. Boo Radley is someone who hasn't done much harm to anyone. Also, Boo Radley has enough publicity as it is, all the nasty rumors about him is a ot. Boo is not what everyone makes him seem, he is actually kind toward Scout. Hack Tate knew Boo killed Bob Ewell not on a personal level, but he did what he thought was morally right. Hack Tate also just wanted the whole situation to die down, so everybody can resume with their life, including Boo.

megypye | Student

I agree with Heck Tate's decision to protect Boo from the attention he would receive if the people of Maycomb knew he was the one to kill Bob Ewell. Boo is a hermit, only leaving his house at night. He risks his life and much-valued privacy to protect Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell's vicious temper. He did the town a favor, and that is how the town would likely see it, too. Tate isn't protecting Boo from the law, really, he is protecting him from the attention he would get as a hero, attention he isn't equipped to deal with.

fairlygoodmother | Student

I have only ever felt compassion for Boo Radley and would never agree that he was mentally able to understand his more violent actions. Boo was as much an innocent as Scout was and deserved the same attentions and guidance. Heck Tate, in my opinion, was duty bound to uphold the law, yes, but he also knew that Boo needed his protection.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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