How has “Maycomb’s usual disease” affected Jem and Scout? Although Jem and Scout are portrayed to be symbols of childhood innocence in the novel, are there examples of them being influenced...

How has “Maycomb’s usual disease” affected Jem and Scout?

Although Jem and Scout are portrayed to be symbols of childhood innocence in the novel, are there examples of them being influenced by prejudice or discriminating against others in the novel?

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MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The short answer is yes. They mostly occur early in the novel, as later Scout and Jem have learned many lessons, and generally moved beyond childish modes of thinking.

The earliest example is their treatment of Boo Radley. They have believed rumors and badly imparted information, and imagine him as some sort of half-human monster. They invent games about the family and play in front of the house. They also childishly tease each other, daring one another to run up and touch the house. After Scout relates that she hears someone laughing inside, the audience realizes that their are actual people in there, attempting to live their lives the best they can. It is not until the end that Scout truly realizes this though, and only when she sees Boo in the flesh.

Another example would be Scout's treatment of Walter Cunningham early in the novel. Although she is not outwardly cruel or hurtful, she does hurt his pride and his dignity accidentally. She is conditioned by the other childrens' responses to the family, but learns the error of her ways when she brings him home for dinner.

One last example could be the childrens' treatment of Mrs. dubose. One could certainly argue that she goads them into their behavior, but Atticus has told Scout and Jem that she was simply an old woman, and to ignore her. Being unable to do so, they are punished, and until her death, they have an image of her as a horrid, racist, cruel woman. It is only after her death that the truth is revealed, and they are forced to change their ideas about her.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is Atticus who refers to the town's "usual disease," and most specifically he is talking about racism. He wants to make sure that Jem and Scout are not infected with it. They never, ever demonstrate the hatred and hypocrisy of racism, but they grow up in a racist society and accept segregation as the norm in the beginning of the novel. The word "nigger" is a common word to them, and one that each uses innocently at separate times, not understanding its terrible implications. Atticus has to explain that they are not to use that word. He stands between his children and the racism they encounter every day. As Jem and Scout witness the tragedy of Tom Robinson's destruction, they are repelled by the cruelty and injustice of it. Innocence is lost as evil becomes a reality. They recognize racism for the evil that it is because, thanks to their father, they had not been infected with Maycomb's "usual disease."

zara-aj | Student

It has affected them a bit as we all know, Jem and scout grow up in the story and therefore learn to overcome "Maycomb's usual disease". However, notice how it was atticus who quoted racism as a disease. He said he was afraid the children would catch it. I feel that his fear came as a result to one part of chapter 5. When he found out about his children putting Boo's life story on display for the edification of others.

And he was right to be afraid as if you were to look at some of scout and Jem's reactions, they have in fact been affected by the disease as it is in one way or another, and whether hey realise it or not, ingrained in them. It is more of scout than jem really who has become so influenced by the prejudices of the society that she doesn't even realise it when she's saying it.

Some quotes of the instances when she/they show(s) prejudice is;

"'She is supposed to go around the back' I said. Jem shook his head. 'Don't make any difference now,' he said. Calpurnia pounded on the door in vain. No one acknowledged her warning; no one seemed to have heard it." - Chapter 10

Here, she is so used to observing the social standing that is blacks are to go through the back door only because they are not as worthy as a white person and are therefore not allowed to use the front entrance (stated in the book somewhere, sorry but i'm not sure where i think chapter 1 when they describe boo's house...) that she applies herself upon Calpurnia, not realising that if she were to go through the back, she would be putting herself and the Radley's in more danger. Also, instead of realising the courage it took Cal to run out to the Radley's while the Mad dog was on the streets, she only noted the fact that Cal was going the wrongh way.

Another example would be when Calpurnia wanted to warn the Radley's of the Mad dog, "'Radley's got a phone?' Jem looked in the book and said no.'They wont come out anyway, Cal'" Jem does not care about the Radleys well being as did Calpurnia. This is probably a result of the prejudice he is so used to having toward the Radleys.

There is one from the trial scene. When especially scout does not find it at all wrong to be blaming Tom Robinson for his actions beause he is after all black.

and when she asks Calpurnia why she 'talk nigger-talk' (chapter 12) when she "know better". I feel that here she is implying that the way whites speak is more superior than that of "nigger-talk". Although to us, we know for a fact that proper english is what some of the educated whites use, the fact that Scout says that by talking like a white is better she seems to imply her beliefs that whites are better than whites as after all, that was what her environment instilled in her; Maycomb's usual disease.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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