What motivates Boo Radley and how does that impact on the story and other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Boo Radley is motivated by an intense desire for companionship. He is a shy, lonely man who wants friends but is afraid to reach out to people.
Most of the neighborhood children, and a good number of adults, are fascinated by Boo Radley. Part of the reason they are fascinated by him is that there is an interesting story and he never comes out. After Boo’s troubled youth, his parents isolated him in his house. Since he never was seen in public, the rumor mill went rampant.
Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. (ch 1, p. 5)
The Radley family is highly religious (Miss Maudie calls old Mr. Radley a “foot-washing Baptist” (ch 5, p. 31). They did not approve of their son’s rebellious actions, and apparently he revolted by stabbing Mr. Radley with scissors (ch 1, p. 7). This act of violence causes people to see him as violent, not shy. In fact, the town children’s imaginations have run wild.
Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall …he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, … his hands were bloodstained … There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled… (ch 1, p. 8)
Even adults tell stories of Boo’s predatory behavior, and the women don’t feel safe. As a result, Boo is ostracized by the community even though no one really knows who he is. He has not been seen in so long that some people think he’s dead.
Yet Boo is not dead. It does not take long before the children’s interactions with him produce fruit. Boo laughs when the children sneak onto the property. He begins leaving treats in the hollow of a tree.
As we came to the live oaks at the Radley Place I raised my finger to point for the hundredth time to the knot-hole where I had found the chewing gum …(ch 4, p. 24)
The children do not know who is leaving the gifts at first, but Nathan Radley does. He cements the knot-hole and tells the children the tree was sick. This must have been devastating to Boo. He left his treasures in the tree as a way of recapturing his childhood. Desperate for companionship, Boo began to reach back to the children who were constantly reaching out to him.
From this point on, Boo is increasingly protective of the children. He puts a blanket on Scout’s shoulders during the fire at Miss Maudie’s house, and mends Jem’s pants so it won’t be discovered that he was on the Radley porch. Boo does these things because he looks at Scout and Jem as friends. He cares about them.
Boo’s protection comes at a cost. Clearly Nathan Radley does not approve. When they find the blanket, Jem seems aware that giving it back would get Boo in trouble.
…he's crazy, I reckon, like they say, but Atticus, I swear to God he ain't ever harmed us, he ain't ever hurt us... (ch 8, p. 51)
Jem has begun to understand that Boo is looking out for them. He ultimately saves their lives, and finally gets to really meet them (Scout, at least, since Jem is unconscious). Atticus thanks him for his children, and Scout realizes that Boo is a mockingbird.
Boo Radley represents an important theme in the book. Sometimes the most innocent among us are the ones who are targeted. It is our responsibility to protect these people, not scapegoat them. This is why Boo is a mockingbird.