To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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What is one example of direct characterization of Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird?

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Walter Fischer eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is the principal character and narrator of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She is six years old when the novel begins and nine when it ends, although Lee’s story is told retrospectively by an adult Jean Louise Finch. As Lee did use her main protagonist as narrator, direct characterizations of Scout had to be attributed to other characters, especially her older brother Jem and, most importantly, her father Atticus. An early example of such a characterization occurs in the opening passages of Chapter 3 when the “tomboy” Scout has tackled the desperately poor Walter Cunningham and is holding him on the ground. Jem intervenes in the one-sided scuffle by inviting the hapless Walter home for dinner and explaining that his sister is “crazy” and “won’t fight you anymore.” Jem’s characterization of his sister as “crazy” is not intended to be taken literally. Scout is free-spirited and strong-willed and has been raised under a strict code of conduct while being afforded enough liberty to learn life’s lessons through observation and inquiry. She is also, however, capable of resorting quickly to violence.

Another direct characterization of Scout occurs later in the same chapter. The Ewell family, the reader learns early in the novel, is the town’s main example of “trash.” Virulently racist and frequently drunk, Bob Ewell, the patriarch of the clan, lives off welfare, most of which is spent on liquor, and is the force driving the story’s most important theme, that of the pernicious influence on human dignity of systemic racism. As the Finch family discusses the Ewell family and its propensity for living outside the bounds of the law, as well as of simple human decency, Atticus comments to his inquisitive daughter,

“Let us leave it at this,” said Atticus dryly. “You, Miss Scout Finch, are of the common folk. You must obey the law.” He said that the Ewells were members of an exclusive society made up of Ewells.

These are but two examples of direct characterization of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Alabama, Lee’s fictional town, which was inspired by her own upbringing in the Deep South, is viewed through the eyes of a precocious young child whose father is a font of wisdom and tolerance in a setting known for neither.

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Direct characterization is any explicit explanation or description of a character. This means that the reader does not have to use inference to understand what may or may not have been implied. Direct characterization can come from the narrator, the character himself or herself, or from other characters. Atticus describes Scout explicitly when he is talking to Uncle Jack about her bad behavior at Christmas. He says the following after Scout gets into a scuffle with her cousin Francis:

"Bad language is a stage all children go through, and it dies with time when they learn they're not attracting attention with it. Hotheadedness isn't. Scout's got to learn to keep her head and learn soon, with what's in store for her these next few months. She's coming along, though. Jem's getting older and she follows his example a good bit now. All she needs is assistance sometimes. . . the answer is she know I know she tries. . . but Scout'd just as soon jump on someone as look at him if her pride's at stake" (87-88).

In the above passage, Atticus directly states that, first, Scout is using bad language lately, but it is a phase; second, she's hotheaded and needs to work on not losing it; third, she is trying her best to stop fighting with others; and finally, she fights to defend her honor and pride. Had Atticus only alluded to her bad behavior without being specific, then that would have been an example of indirect characterization. With this passage, the reader clearly sees what Scout needs to work on as well as the fact that she's doing her best to follow her father's wishes.

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Direct characterization is when the narrator tells us a character’s traits.  Since Scout is the narrator in To Kill a Mockingbird, direct characterization is when Scout describes herself.  While Scout spends a lot of time characterizing others, she does not often describe herself.

An example of indirect characterization is in chapter 2, when Miss Caroline learns that Scout can read.  Scout considers this.

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

With this statement, we learn that Scout loves to read.  Throughout the book, we learn more about Scout from her actions than what she says about herself.  She tells us what she thinks and what she does, but she rarely describes herself.  Although she is the narrator, the focus of the book is on others.

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