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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee
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When does Jem lose his innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem’s loss of innocence is closely associated with death and occurs through stages rather than all at once. The death of Mrs. Dubose, his father’s shooting the mad dog, and Tom Robinson’s conviction and death are all important events. These all lead up to the final loss of innocence when he protects his sister while surviving Bob Ewell’s attack.

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The loss of innocence refers to Jem's emergence into a mature, adult understanding of the truths of the world as he loses his naive and childlike views.

This is a process that happens over time, but if there is a singular event that completes this process, it is definitely the conviction of Tom Robinson in spite of substantial and convincing evidence that he could not have possibly committed the crimes he's accused of. Jem believes that Atticus has represented Tom well, and he thus initially believes that Tom will be declared innocent. When Atticus shows that Bob Ewell is left-handed and could have inflicted Mayella's injuries, Jem is certain this is the convincing evidence the jury needs:

Jem seemed to be having a quiet fit. He was pounding the balcony rail softly, and once he whispered, “We’ve got him.”

Yet even Scout, who is younger, believes that Jem is "counting his chickens" in this moment. When the trial concludes and the verdict is announced, Jem is utterly devastated by his community and the justice system, rethinking everything he once believed to be true.

It was Jem’s turn to cry. His face was streaked with angry tears as we made our way through the cheerful crowd. “It ain’t right,” he muttered, all the way to the corner of the square where we found Atticus waiting.

From this point forward, Jem is changed. He no longer believes that good always wins or that justice is always served. He is broken, wondering how his community could have let Tom down so completely and wondering how to fix the justice system which was supposed to protect him and all other innocent people.

These are not the innocent thoughts of a child. They show a new and deeper evaluation of the world around him, and Jem moves into the world of young adulthood from this point forward.

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In some respects, the entire novel is the story of the Finch children’s loss of innocence. Both Scout and Jem are very different people at the beginning and the end of the novel. In the early part of the book, Jem is coming into his teen years and has gained some maturity but sometimes treats his younger sister in a condescending, sexist manner. Loss of innocence goes hand in hand with gaining empathy, as Jem incorporates his father’s advice to think about the other person, not just oneself.

Taking this advice is a large part of what advances Jem’s loss of innocence. He must learn to respect Mrs. Dubose rather than begrudge time spent reading to her in atonement. It is only after her death that he also learns what she was enduring.

The shooting scene with the dog is important both for the theme of death and for Jem’s loss of innocence regarding his father. The children viewed Atticus as old and decrepit until he put down a rabid dog with a single shot. Jem’s new reverence for his father’s skill grows considerably after this event. His near hero worship of his father makes it all the more discouraging when Atticus loses the Robinson case. Jem is upset not only that Robinson has been convicted but also because his father lost the case.

Processing this devastating loss and Robinson’s death in prison lead to the final loss of innocence, when Bob Ewell attacks the young Finches. Although he fights bravely and protects his sister, Jem suffers a broken arm. Only when he and his sister become the victims of violence does he understand that adults can be cowards who deliberately attack children.

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Jem loses his innocence after witnessing racial injustice for the first time during the Tom Robinson trial. Throughout the trial, Jem believes that Tom will be found innocent. Jem is naive to think that a prejudiced jury would rule in favor of an African American man in the racist community of Maycomb. At the end of Chapter 21, Judge Taylor reads the guilty verdict, which shocks and upsets Jem. Jem loses his childhood innocence, and Scout mentions that each "guilty" seems to stab Jem between his shoulders. After the guilty verdict is read, Jem begins to cry and repeatedly says, "It ain't right" (Lee, 131). As the novel progresses, Jem expresses his disgust at Maycomb's prejudiced judicial system. Before hearing the final verdict, Jem naively believed that the Maycomb jury would rule in favor of Tom Robinson. After Tom Robinson is pronounced guilty, Jem loses his childhood innocence and becomes jaded towards his prejudiced neighbors.

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Two events in the first part of the novel stand out as defining moments of an awakening within Jem. When Jem returns to the Radley fence to retrieve his lost pants following the children's raid on their neighbor's back porch, he finds them waiting for him--folded and crudely mended. He may not have understood the implications at that moment, but he must have realized that only Boo Radley could have done this. But it is the act by Boo's brother that completely robs Jem of his innocence. When Jem finds the secret knothole of the Radley oak sealed up, he questions Nathan about it. Boo's brother assures Jem that the oak is sick.

     "Tree's dying. You plug 'em with cement when they're sick. You ought to know that, Jem."  (Chapter 7)

But when Jem asks Atticus about it, his father points out that

"... the leaves, they're all green and full, no brown patches anywhere--
     "That tree's as healthy as you are, Jem."  (Chapter 7)

Jem not only discovers that adults lie when it is necessary, but that Nathan's reason for sealing the knothole--the place where Boo's gifts are found and the children's only way of communicating with him--is strictly out of meanness.

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