The Presentation of Children and Childhood in the First 9 Chapters of “To Kill a Mockingbird” Essay Sample
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The Presentation of Children and Childhood in the First 9 Chapters of “To Kill a Mockingbird” Essay Sample
It is relatively easy to see that during the first 9 chapters of the book there are several intended and significant mirrors of events between the children’s sheltered world and that of the adults. Throughout the book the transition from childhood to adult life remains a key theme and the introduction of these intermediary issues is of vital importance. The relevance of childhood does not just encompass those youthful within the setting of book, but also features older figures who younger years are analysed to add another dimension to the book’s carefully constructed plotline.
Scout Finch is the narrator and protagonist of the story. She lives with her father, Atticus, her brother, Jem, and their black cook, Calpurnia, in Maycomb. Scout is clearly intelligent and a tomboy, with a combative streak and a basic faith in the goodness of the people in her community. As well having close relationships with the other members of the Finch family, she is close to Dill and also can relate somewhat to Burris in her dislike for school.
Jem Finch is Scout’s brother and constant playmate. He is something of a typical preadolescent boy, refusing to back down from dares and fantasizing about playing football. In addition to his relationship with Scout, Jem has particular links with Dill, a boy of the same age, and his father Atticus, Jem’s clear role model.
Dill is Jem and Scout’s summer neighbour and friend. Dill is a diminutive, confident boy with an active imagination. He is somewhat representative of the type of childhood innocence apparent at the start of the book. Dill, being an outsider, only has connections to Jem and Scout within Maycomb.
Little Chuck Little, although a physically small figure, has a confident and upstanding personality. He is, as Scout puts it, a “member of the population who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from” and in this way can be linked to both Burris Ewell and the poor Walter Cunningham. Chuck’s tendency to always act gentleman (politely explaining to Miss Caroline what a ‘cootie’ was) could also relate him to Jem.
Walter Cunningham is the son of a Maycomb farmer that came out the wrong side of the Depression. He is malnourished and deprived but otherwise tries his best to be a respectable member of the community (his manners lack when it comes to food, however). In his poverty, Walter can be linked to both Burris and Chuck Little.
Burris is a member of the notorious Ewell household. Scout describes him as the most “filthy human being [she] had ever seen”. Burris too comes from a disturbed and destitute family background with his father being a recognised drunk.
Cecil Jacobs is known to Scout and Jem through school. He is introduced to the story when cursing Atticus for “defending a nigger”. Cecil seems relatively well off but his spitefulness can be likened to that of Francis.
Francis is a second cousin to the children of the Finch family. Every Christmas, he stays with Uncle Jack and Aunt Alexandra at Finch’s Landing. A year older than Scout, he “enjoyed everything [she] disapproved of and disliked [her] ingenious diversions”. Francis lying to Jack and commenting on Atticus’s affairs is not dissimilar to the way in which Cecil Jacobs teased Scout or Dill lied to Atticus about Jem loosing his pants.
Boo Radley, although not a child at the time of the books setting, has his childhood featured as an important link to the theme of prejudice within the books setting. Boo’s ‘trial’ as a child and the ensuing grounding by his father can be linked to the Tom Robinson case slowly developing throughout the start of the book.
The entire text of To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the time between Scout Finch’s fifth and ninth birthdays, but it seems Scout commences the first-person narrative that opens the novel much later in her life. As a result, the novel’s narration changes between the child’s point of view, chronicling the events as they happen, and the adult voice, looking back on her childhood many years later. The child’s voice of innocence dominates the central plot, allowing the reader to make connections and understand events in a way that the young Scout does not. At the same time, the narrative often strays into descriptions presented looking back, like Scout’s depiction of Maycomb in the first chapter: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it…. Somehow, it was hotter then … [p]eople moved slowly then.” The author’s language indicates an adult’s recollection rather than a girl’s experience.
In her interactions with Miss Caroline, Scout is victimized by her teacher’s inexperience; Scout means well but receives punishment in return. The rigid, impersonal protocols demanded by the law and by Miss Caroline’s method of teaching are shown to be insufficient and irrational – Burris Ewell can keep the law happy by coming to school only one day a year, while Scout incurs her teacher’s wrath simply by learning to read at an early age. This absurd educational outlook fails catastrophically to meet the needs of either student. Scout, who is commonsensical enough to perceive this failure immediately, is frustrated by her inability to understand why her teacher acts as she does, and why she, Scout, continually incurs disfavour for well-intentioned actions. However, as Atticus tells her, “You never really understand a person until you … climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Although she sometimes can make mistakes, whether dealing with adults or with other children, Scout always means well and her nature is essentially good.
The night in which Francis starts making fun of Dill and talking unfavourably about Atticus to Scout poses several interesting points. Because Scout does not want her father to find out she beat up Francis over the Tom Robinson case (she had promised him to “keep her head”), she makes Jack promise not to say anything to him even after relating the whole incident and way in which Francis had lied to Jack about the reason for Scout hitting him. Overhearing a conversation between Jack and Atticus back in Maycomb, Scout fears Jack may break his promise about not telling Atticus about the fight.
Jack keeps his word, however, which impresses Scout to no end. Even after the injustice she suffered from Francis’s deceit and Alexandra’s instructions to become “more ladylike”, Scout sees that some adults in addition to her father still can be trusted. During the course of the same conversation, Scout hears more details of the Tom Robinson case along with Atticus’s desire for “Jem and Scout to come to [him] for their answers.” Even though Jack had not told him about Scout’s fight, Atticus clearly knows his children well enough to realise that just one instructing talk about how they should keep their cool is not enough in a situation as hostile as the one he is about to get himself into. As Scout notes, “it was not until many years later that I realised he [Atticus] had wanted me to hear every word he said”.
In comparison to Scout’s still very childish perspective, Jem’s more mature understanding of the world and strong sense is justice is evident within the first part of the book.. When Nathan Radley plugs up the hole in the tree, Scout is disappointed but hardly heartbroken, seeing it as merely the end of their presents. Jem, on the other hand, is brought to tears, because he grasps that Boo’s brother has done something cruel: he has deprived Boo of his connection to the wider world and has broken up his brother’s attempt at friendship. This incident, which the reader must detect behind the scenes of Scout’s narrative, plays into the novel’s broad theme of suffering innocence. As Scout retains her innocence and optimism, Jem undergoes severe disillusionment as part of his “growing up”.
Dill dominates the early part of the novel: he is only a summer visitor, with no connection to Maycomb’s adult world. As the adult world becomes an increasingly important part of the story, Dill fades from his symbolic position of innocence. At the start of the book, however, Dill’s childhood perspective is of great significance and only hints are left at the darker, more adult problems that will intrude on Jem and Scout. One of the central themes of To Kill a Mockingbird is the process of growing up and developing a more mature perspective on life. As such, the narrative gradually comes to mirror a loss of innocence, as the carefree childhood of this first chapter is slowly replaced by a more cynical adult story in which the children become less important participants.
Walter Cunningham gives the reader a first glimpse of the Cunningham family, part of the large population of poor farmers in the land around Maycomb. Walter’s poverty introduces the very adult theme of social class into the novel. Scout notes that Maycomb was a “run-down town caught up in the Great Depression” and with the introduction of the Cunninghams the rest of Maycomb begins to be introduced. Jem later divides Maycomb into four social classes, placing the Cunninghams a level beneath the other families in the town (Walter’s fondness for molasses on all of his food illustrates the difference in status between his family and the Finches).
The description and conclusions drawn from Burris Ewell quickly manage to identify the family as a whole. The Ewells it seems are below even the Cunninghams on the social ladder, and Burris’ unapologetic ignorance, poor hygiene and ill temper clearly identify him as a villain of the story. Scout cannot understand why Burris can get away with going to school only one day in the year – Atticus tells her that “[s]ometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases”. Burris’ disobedience is mirrored in his father’s habit of trapping out of season – similarly in his attitude towards Burris, however, Atticus says he “doesn’t know of any landowner around here who begrudges [the Ewell children] any game their father can hit”. Scout still fails to grasp her father’s noble and sympathetic viewpoint of the most “disgraceful” family in Maycomb.
Boo Radley becomes the focus of the children’s curiosity from the very start of the book. As suits the perspective the children, he is given no identity apart from the superstitions that surround him. Scout describes him as a “malevolent phantom” over six feet tall who eats squirrels and cats. Of course, the reader realizes that there must be more to Boo’s story than these superstitions imply. Miss Maudie offers insight into the origins of Boo’s reclusiveness and a sympathetic perspective on his story: she has only contempt for the superstitious view of Boo. He is no demon, and she knows that he is alive, because she hasn’t seen him “carried out yet.” From her point of view, Boo was a nice boy who suffered at the hands of a tyrannically religious family. As a sweet, young child apparently driven mad by an overbearing father obsessed with sin and retribution, Boo epitomizes injustice and the loss of innocence that the book is strongly themed upon. For the children, who first treat him as a superstition and an object of ridicule but later come to view him as a human being, Boo becomes an important benchmark in their gradual development of a more sympathetic, mature perspective.
As well as serving as a base for more important issues brought up later in the book, the first 9 chapters include many events that have their own degree of self importance. The descriptions and happenings of the children’s world serve not only to introduce the young main characters but also the families and attitudes of Maycomb in general. The transitional events that involve Scout and Jem already seem to have started to change their carefree, innocent attitudes portrayed at the start of the novel into more wary and inquisitive natures. The adult world is slowly creeping up on their childhood, and the lessons learnt in the children’s younger years will, unknown as yet, serve to prepare the children for the happenings of ‘real life’.