In many novels there's a character who appears rarely but is referred to by many other characters and helps develop a theme in the novel...How does Boo Radley's mere presence in the book help...

In many novels there's a character who appears rarely but is referred to by many other characters and helps develop a theme in the novel...

How does Boo Radley's mere presence in the book help develop the theme?

-My teacher told us to write an essay on this and I am so stumped on what themes work...please help if you could. Thanks!

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an excellent question.

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the character of Boo Radley is responsible for developing a number of themes in the story.

If you refer to eNotes' section on themes for this novel, you will note three that are directly related to Boo Radley.  They are prejudice and tolerance, courage and cowardice and loss of innocence.

Prejudice is a belief about someone where the facts are not taken into account: all blondes are dumb is an example of a prejudicial statement, or teenagers cannot be trusted. There is a bias present that is not based on facts.

We see the theme of prejudice and tolerance with Boo Radley. There are many stories that circulate about Boo, and Scout and Jem are fascinated by them, tempted to believe everything they hear. (It is unfortunate to note that the stories are often things they hear from adults.) The children perceive Boo to be a scary man that eats squirrels and looks in women's windows at night. There is no evidence to support this information, but Scout and Jem are fearful nonetheless. Tolerance is exhibited when Atticus tells the children to stop trying to invite Boo out for ice cream, or infringe on the family's privacy by play-acting based on the rumors they have heard. Atticus tries to teach the children to be tolerant: take time to walk in a man's skin in order to better know him. (And at the end, Scout is easily able to connect to Boo when she notices him in the shadowy corner of Jem's bedroom on the night of the attack. She takes him by the hand, is able to understand how he might be feeling, and sees to his comfort as they visit and when she eventually walks him home.)

The theme of courage and cowardice is seen with Bob Ewell's attempt on the children's lives. He stalks in the dark as they are coming home from the school pageant. Ewell is a coward, taking out his anger at Atticus on two innocent, vulnerable youngsters. Boo is the unlikely hero who throws himself in harm's way to protect Scout and Jem, and in doing so, Ewell is killed. Boo is little more than a phantom: fearful of others, hiding in the shadows, a dim reflection of who he once was because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father for a childhood mistake, yet he becomes real to Scout when she recognizes him as a real person. And it is his courage, even in light of how he has been harmed, that saves the Finch children.

Loss of innocence is a theme that applies to Boo as well. Boo's innocence was taken from him when he was a teenager after he got in trouble one night driving around with some friends. Whereas the other boys were shipped off to a special school because of their behavior, able later to get on with their lives, Boo is left in the jail by his dad until the county demands Boo be taken home. Once Mr. Radley does so, Boo is locked away in his house for many years thereafter, imprisoned first by his father, and later by his brother Nathan. Boo, like Tom Robinson, is a symbolic mockingbird. He does no harm to anyone, but he is harmed. He is robbed of the remainder of his youth—a loss of innocence—and he will never be the same again.

Ironically, it is Boo who, by saving the children, protects not only their lives but their innocence as well. Certainly they will be changed with this experience, as Jem was with Tom Robinson's trial, but the world will remain a relatively simple and safe place a little while longer because of Boo's willingness to protect them.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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