A few thoughts about the presentation of Boo Radley as a result of an email from an absent student….
How is Boo Radley presented?
1: Establish appearance and reality. IN a novel where so much is recounted through the eyes of a highly subjective and unreliable narrator, it is important to separate the known unknowns from the unknown knowns and the known knowns…
What are we told that may not be true – the known unknowns
- Boo is a wild man chained to a bed eating squirrels – all a figment of Jem’s overactive Gothic imagination. A diet of ghost stories has left Jem with ample time to develop his imaginary world.
- This is casually referred to inChapter 4 with Walter who adds his own little piece of gossip – the “pizened” pecans
- The story of the stabbing and subsequent incarceration as told by Stephanie Crawford is another unsubstantiated slur. As a result of some unexplained misdeed it is possible that Boo was locked in the basement of the jail for an indeterminate time – enough to thoroughly frighten a sensitive character and to make it increasingly likely that they would wish to stay indoors….
- He becomes the central figure of all the children’s games, with Dill particularly intrigued by him. He is central to the cliffhanger which ends chapter 4 when “someone inside was laughing” following Scout’s arrival inside the tyre. This is meant to be chilling.
So if the children and Miss Stephanie create an image of Boo to chill the blood, what are the unknown knowns and the known knowns?
- Boo was in trouble as a youth and was not sent away to the industrial and so missed out on the “best secondary education in the state”. The trouble owed more to being a teenager than being a criminal but broke some of the unwritten “codes of society”.
- His father seems cruel and unthinking in relation to his treatment of Boo.
- Nobody has seen him for many years, yet Atticus seems utterly unfazed at the end of the novel- possibly he is not too much of a stranger after all to the older generation.
- When the children break into the Radley garden it is Boo’s hand which mends the jeans sewed up “all crooked”.
- It must be Boo who provides Scout with a blanket during the fire
- It must be Boo who provides the gifts in the knot hole, and Mr Radley fills it to spite him, not the children.
- Boo saves the children’s lives and richly deserves Atticus’ thanks
- He is subject to discrimination in all the tales told by the likes of Miss Stephanie and allows Atticus to show his innate fairness.
So much, so good…
Boo is very much a key part of the action in the early part of the novel – when the children are at their most impressionable, and reemerges at the end, though he is not part of the plot around the trial and the injustice given to Tom Robinson. This seems right because he lies completely outside society and has a different function. He is a victim of prejudice, just a certainly as Tom, but not because of colour, rather due to the hypocritical actions of the gossips around town who stringently enforce their “codes” – the ones that Mayella will break, and do not tolerate variance from the norm. He has paid the penalty for breaking societies codes, but this has not made him into a bad person. Everything he does is to benefit society – in the form of what Lee refers to as “his children” when she finally gets to stand on his porch in the wonderful coda of the book when the narrative slips into an omniscient third person description of the story from Boo’s perspective.
Despite the initial appearances drawn up by Jem and the others, he is a figure of good – a real “mockingbird” untouched by the hypocrisies of “polite” society. He is fearless in defence of right and lives to care for the children. Whether it is stretching things to see him as a second Atticus as a result of this, I am not sure, but thought his actions and motives are different, he certainly embodies many of Atticus’ most pungent character traits:
It is a sin to kill a mockingbird. It is also wrong, as Jem points out to torture a defenceless bug. Boo is both of these things. A real force for good who goes unobserved at the centre of society without being part of society. His taunting by the children may well have been cruel, as Atticus points out, but it helped him to develop a relationship with the children which would ultimately save their lives. Boo flits ghost- like through the book and his final description as he stands in the bedroom: “his face was as white as his hands…is grey eyes were so colourless, I thought he was blind…His hair was dead an thin… feathery on top of his head” is a far cry from Jem’s image of blooodstained hands and other savagery. It is fitting that Scout walks him home – he does not seem to be of the same world as the rest of the characters of the book. Indeed, the book that Atticus reads Scout at the end of the novel could be his autobiography – The Grey Ghost.