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Theme of Empathy in To Kill A Mockingbird

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It’s not a simple task to try and step into another’s shoes, however defying general beliefs to empathize with another is a feat many cannot achieve. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird was composed by Harper Lee and is told from the perspective of Scout Finch, a child growing up in Maycomb County with her father and brother in the 1930s. The reader is carried along with Scout as she expresses her evolving interpretation of the world and her deeply southern town. One of the primary themes in To Kill a Mockingbird is empathy. Throughout the novel, Scout displays a growing quantity of empathy toward those whom many Maycomb citizens might ridicule without remorse. A few fundamental instances that exemplify Scout’s growth into a mature adult include her developing interpretations of the Cunninghams, Mayella Ewell, and ultimately, Boo Radley.

One illustration of empathy is exemplified by Scout in relation to the Cunningham family. The Cunningham family is a fixture in Scout’s life. Scout’s evolving perspective on the members of this Maycomb family illustrates the progression of her maturity and nonconformance to Maycomb’s common beliefs in relation to her age. The reader’s introduction to the Cunningham family occurs early in the novel when Scout attempts to explain the absence of Walter Cunningham’s lunch to their teacher, Miss Caroline.

Scout’s endeavor to explain her rudimentary understanding of Maycomb’s social structure to goes awry when Miss Caroline ignores her and proceeds to publicly chastise her and strikes Scout’s hands with a ruler. In retribution, Scout beats up Walter, but when Jem acquires knowledge of it, he dismays her by inviting Walter to dinner. It is during this dinner that she confronts Walter for pouring syrup, an extravagance to him, atop the entirety of his meal. When chided for a second time that day, this time by the Finch’s maid, Calpurnia, Scout explains, “He ain’t company, Cal, he’s just a Cunningham- ” (Lee 33) Scout is insinuating that the Cunninghams are poor, and therefore lesser than Scout. However, Scout later realizes her fallacy, and subsequently defends Walter. This illustrates Scout’s nascent approach into an adult’s comprehension of Maycomb. She steps into Walter’s shoes, understanding he is not at fault for his situation, and that although his family may not be affluent, they work hard, and merit no less courtesy than herself and Jem. This, however, is not Scout’s only demonstration of empathy in the novel.

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Scout also exhibits incredible empathy towards Mayella Ewell, the young woman who was impelled by her father to accuse Tom Robinson of rape. One would imagine that Scout would disdain Mayella, as her actions were based on falsehoods, not to mention the fact that she was endangering Scout’s father. However, in chapter nineteen of To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout expresses her compassion towards Mayella. She says, “It came to me that Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world. She was even lonelier than Boo Radley, who had not been out of the house in twenty-five years. When Atticus asked had she any friends, she seemed not to know what he meant, then she thought he was making fun of her. She was as sad, I thought, as what Jem called a mixed child.” (Lee 256) Scout realizes how desolate Mayella’s life must be. She seldom leaves her residence, is forced to be the primary caregiver for the other Ewell children, is alienated by the Maycomb community, and when Scout’s father expressed the common decency to address her as “Miss”, she takes offense to it, believing he is deriding her destitution. Despite the tribulations that Mayella has generated for the Finch family, Scout still is able to recognize what this isolated girl must be undergoing. I believe this is one of Scout’s primary instances in which she was able to empathize with someone who has maliciously caused Scout’s family harm. This shows the emergence of one of Scout’s extraordinary attributes, the ability to empathize with someone she does not see eye to eye with. However, Scout’s pity for Mayella is not her ultimate demonstration of empathy in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Scout’s development of empathy is also affirmed in the case of “Boo” Arthur Radley. Boo was the subject of cruel and juvenile tales told by the children of Maycomb. Scout grew up terrified of his property and would quiver at the mere mention of his presence. As Scout matured, she was preoccupied with the trial and the threat against her family. The notion of “Boo” Arthur Radley was lost with other puerile fears as she became aware of how sinister people in the tangible world can be. During the conclusion of To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout learns that Arthur actually protected her and Jem from being murdered. She walks him home, and subsequently, stands on his porch. She reflects upon his view of the events that occurred, concluding that, “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” (Lee 374) Scout reckons that Arthur connected with “his children” in what ways he could. He viewed other Maycomb neighbors bestowing gifts upon the others and attempted to copy them, leaving presents in the tree. She regrets not leaving a gift in return, as neighbors usually do. She realizes that he was looking out for them in the only way he either knew how, or was permitted to. I believe this statement signals Scout’s complete exit out of that childish, follower mindset, and into a maturing adult. This quote demonstrates that she wholly comprehends that the social views of most citizens of

Maycomb are not based on fact, but, habit. Empathy plays a crucial role in Scout’s maturity. She begins the book subservient, someone who will blindly follow most people in authority. Her maturity can be held as an example of what many United States citizens need to imitate. In times where people believe singularly in their own values, many will not even attempt to understand others’ opinions. Scout displays that one must form their own opinions and ideas, even if they might be controversial to those in one’s vicinity. Looking back on the past, one might view the right choice as obvious, however, in the moment, the correct decisions are not always blatant. One must look at their present decisions and realize that even if their community may not agree with them, if they are making the kinder choice, they will never look back remorsefully upon their decision.

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Theme of Empathy in To Kill A Mockingbird. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-empathy-in-to-kill-a-mockingbird/
“Theme of Empathy in To Kill A Mockingbird.” Edubirdie, 08 Jul. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-empathy-in-to-kill-a-mockingbird/
Theme of Empathy in To Kill A Mockingbird. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-empathy-in-to-kill-a-mockingbird/> [Accessed 3 Oct. 2022].
Theme of Empathy in To Kill A Mockingbird [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 08 [cited 2022 Oct 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-empathy-in-to-kill-a-mockingbird/
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