Why is Scout's innocent voice so important in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Harper Lee presents an unusual narrator in her book To Kill a Mockingbird. The narration is first person point of view with Scout --the child and the adult-- narrating the story.  From the beginning of the story, it is evident that Jean Louise Finch, the adult,  looks back on this special time in her life; however, Scout, the child, gives the perspective of an incident as an innocent child.  For the most part, the commentary comes from the naiveté of the child.

1st incident

Scout provides a unique voice concerning very adult situations. When the mob wants to hang Tom Robinson, Atticus stands up for his client with a rifle—he was one man against a mob.  The old saying “Out of the mouth of babes…” applies because Scout, who was not supposed to be there, sees one of her school mate’s fathers. 

In her innocence, she calls attention to an individual by calling  out his name—this removes the mob protection---and brings the men back to their senses by looking at the face of Scout. The leader Mr. Cunningham owed Atticus for work that he had done for him.  Walter, Scout’s  schoolmate, had eaten lunch with them during school.

Scout: “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”

The man did not hear me, it seemed.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.  How’s your entailment gettin’ along? Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain't he?”

Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me after all.

Scout continues to talk to Mr. Cunningham until she realizes that everyone is looking at her.

She asks what is the matter with everyone.  Mr. Cunningham kneels down and takes Scout by the shoulders and tells her that he will tell Walter that she said hello.  The mob breaks apart with everyone going home. Without knowing what she was doing, Scout diverts a lynch mob from murdering Tom Robinson.

2nd incident

Despite Scout’s age, she is obviously intelligent and quick-witted. On the other hand, she is hot-tempered and undisciplined.  Scout resists change at every opportunity.  As she matures during the story, Scout tries to incorporate Atticus’s lessons into her behavior. When the children taunt her because Atticus is defending a black man, Scout does not retaliate. 

3rd incident

The most valuable quality that Scout uses in the story comes from her blunt honesty.  Calpurnia was appalled at her rudeness toward Walter.  Eventually, she learns to temper her blunt responses with more tact and sensitivity.

Trying to help the teacher, Scout gets in trouble on the first day of school.  Miss Caroline is new to Maycomb and Scout tries to help her by telling her about the students in her class, particularly Walter. 

Without understanding what she is doing wrong, Scout continues to explain about why the teacher should not loan Walter any money.  The teacher punishes Scout, ruining her first day of school. To add to her problems with the teacher, Scout already knows how to read; this frustrates the teacher even more.

4th incident

Standing on Boo Radley’s porch and looking at the world from his view, Scout surveys the neighborhood. For the first time, Scout understands that Boo has watched the children as they have grown. 

Obviously, Boo tried to act as their protector when he killed Bob Ewell. She is sad thinking that she and Jem had given Boo nothing. Of course, this is not true.  Arthur has enjoyed watching the children and may have considered them as part of his family. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The voice of the young, ingenuous child precludes bias and cultural conditioning, two serious blinders to objective judgments. So, with Scout's voice, the reader is presented the microcosm of Maycomb society through her unknowing perspective and follows her perceptual growth as she innocently repeats what she has heard, learning, along the way, the implications of what she had said and, the, formulating in her mind things as they should be realistically. This gradual formulation by Scout is what constitutes the coming-of-age of the narrator of the bildungsroman, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

  • The most salient example of Scout's innocence is her attempt to diffuse tension by talking to Mr. Cunningham of his "entailment," naively using one of her father's legal terms. For, it is only later that Scout learns that her singling out of Mr. Cunningham has caused him some embarrassment as he engages in a mob action against Tom Robinson in confronting Atticus with others at the jailhouse.
  • Less subtle, perhaps, is Scout's innocent presentation of Miss Caroline in the first chapters.  Scout remarks ingenuously that Miss Caroline is from Winston County, an area in Nothern Alabama that refused to secede in pre-Civil War. Rather than being prejudiced against Miss Caroline for coming from an area that sided with the North, Scout merely finds her methods odd and inscrutable, unknowingly presenting the reader with one of Maycomb's cultural biases. 
  • Hers and the other children's perception of Boo Radley as a "haint" also points to the innocence of Scout that develops into an understanding of the quiet man.  For, in contrast to her believing him a ghoulish being, Scout learns that he is simply a painfully shy man who has become an odd recluse, who should not be taunted. This new knowledge underscores the mockingbird theme and new Scout's understanding of others as part of her coming of age.
  • Certainly, Scout's innocent observation that as Mayella Ewell sits on the witness stand, she does not seem to have good sense points to much more about her. First, as Jem answers Scout, he opens up another approach to Mayella;

"Can't tell yet....She's got enough sense to get the judge sorry for her, but, she might be just--oh, I don't know."

  • Then, as Mayella continues to perjure herself, Scout's narration opens up the characterization of Mayella and explicates so well the meaning of "trash" as Mayella has been degraded for so long by her social and economic condition as well as the abuse of her sordid father that she has become devoid of any social or spiritual decency. Scout observes,

Apparently Mayella's recital had given her confidence, but it was not her father's brash kind; there was something like a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tail.

With the innocent narrative of Scout, Jean Louise Finch, the reader is, therefore, presented an unbiased opinion of situations and characters in Lee's novel as well as a questioning of them, and is then better able to assess the value of these characters as well as  the cultural wisdom of the town presented from a child who lacks the guile of one older.  For, in the play and judgments of the children, there is a development from an imaginative naivete to a level of experience that admits the genuiness of life's deceits and games.











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To Kill a Mockingbird

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