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To Kill a Mockingbird: Boo Radley’s Supreme Ordeal on the Hero’s Journey
the hero’s journey
No one has written more about the hero’s journey than Joseph Campbell. Among his many articles and books on the subject, Campbell articulates the hero’s deeper understanding of four elements of the journey: the sacred marriage, the atonement of the father, apotheosis, and the theft of the elixir. While Monomania’s journey follows a pattern that every superhero story follows, more or less, the character of Bo Radley in Harper Lee’s award-winning novel Do not touch the nightingale Becomes in these stages a stronger person who changes life for the better for the town of Maycomb, Alabama.
The holy matrimony
The sacred marriage of Beau Radley takes place between two halves of the hero: the anima and the animus. As the call to adventure begins in this hero’s journey, where he is imprisoned by his father for a minor crime, he participates in the horror of a gang that has beaten and violated the law of the ladies by shouting obscene language. As punishment, his fellow gang members went to the State Industrial School and received a good education, but at the age of 17, Bo’s life outside his home was over. “Nobody knew what form of intimidation Mr. Radley used to keep Bo out of sight, but Jem thought Mr. Radley kept him tied to the bed most of the time. Atticus said no…there are other ways to make people ghost” (12) . When the story opens, Bo is now in his thirties and has had no communication with the outside world since his youth. However, he crosses the threshold into a new world, when one summer three children – Scout, Jem and Shamir, decide to make him go out.
Only when he becomes aware of what the children are doing, he begins to search for his anima – his need to protect and take care of the children who want to make him a part of their lives, even if sometimes only in their imaginations. . He leaves presents in the hole of the oak tree near his house, he puts a blanket over the shoulders of a girl scout when Miss Moody’s house burns down, he crudely sews up Jem’s torn pants at night when the three children look in the back window of his house, and he takes a risk. his life to save theirs from Bob Ewell one night in October.
Bo Radley is a half-baked man, and the holy marriage of his anima and animus helps him discover the truth about himself. He is a valuable person whose valuable gifts offer friendship and hope to children, but also a sense of who it is in him – two Indian head pennies that bring long life and good health and a spelling medal that appears simultaneously in him. In life, he was also a good student. Among these gifts are two soap dolls, carved with such skill by Boo himself that Scout and Jem can recognize themselves in these pictures. Other gifts include a ball of yarn and a pack of gum, allowed during this decadent 1930s.
And the children reciprocate with innocent game antics like a family of one where the three reproduce the rumors they heard about the Radley couple, but also actions taken to reach him – the failed attempt to send an invitation to ice cream using a note attached to a fishing line and a thank you letter intended for the contact hole. The reader understands that Bo is watching them with interest and amusement but also with concern for their safety. The day Girl Scout rolls a tire and ends up in the Radley’s front yard, she hears a sound. “Someone inside the house laughed” (45), and she suspects it was him.
After their father unsuccessfully defends a black man, Tom Robinson, against Bob Ewell’s false accusation that he raped his daughter, Tom goes to prison, not convinced that an appeal will get him free, and tries to escape only to be shot seventeen times. However, Bob Ewell isn’t done, and vows to fight back against Atticus, who doesn’t take his threats seriously. One night in October when Scout and Jem are walking home from the school pageant, a drunken Bob Ewell attacks and tries to kill them. Boo protects the children and stabs Bob with a kitchen knife, killing him, Boo’s last act in Holy Matrimony.
Harper Lee aptly describes the Radley family in two sentences, “The squalor of that house began many years before Jem and I were born. The Radleys, welcome anywhere in town, kept to themselves, an unforgivable disposition in Maycomb” (10). After he was released following his gang’s flier incident, Mr. Radley made sure his son wasn’t seen again for fifteen years. In his great anger, Bo was thirty-three years old when he stabbed his father in the leg with the scissors he used to cut the newspaper for his album. Bo resided in the basement of the courthouse but eventually returned home where he remained for the rest of his life.
Before he answers the call to adventure, he lives passively with an enemy, his father. In order for Bo to continue his journey, the father figures and Bo must be reconciled. He begins this process by offering gifts in the pit of connection, not only imitating the actions of a generous and loving father but also the long-standing traditions between father and son. Atticus allowed Jem to carry his pocket watch, which would eventually become his in the custom of passing from father to son. When Bo puts his watch and chain in the hole, although broken, Jem decides he’d rather try to fix it and wear it. Bo’s broken watch indicates that time has almost stopped for Bo Radley at the age of seventeen, but it is more specifically an indication of his father’s atonement, allowing him to make up for his father’s losses, mistakes, cruelty, and his father figure, his own. Brother Nathan. Bo passes his watch on to Jem, who is like a son to him.
Mr Radley died but Nathan came to take his place and impose further imprisonment on him. When Nathan discovers where the contact hole was used to communicate with the outside world, he fills the hole with cement. When Jem discovers that Nathan filled the hole of a healthy tree, he “stood there till nightfall… When we got into the house I saw he had been crying; his face was dirty in all the right places, but I thought it strange I didn’t hear him” (71). This symbolic death for Bo in this innermost cave creates an even greater necessity for rebirth, and he accepts the challenge despite the dangers he must face later when he must slay the dragon.
In conquering the father figure through Bo’s reconciliation, the hero is allowed to reach a higher plane. The fact that he destroys the father who physically abuses and betrays his own children, especially Miley, and tries to kill Atticus’ children contributes to his own father’s atonement. When Bo saves the kids from Bob Ewell’s attack, Sheriff Huck Tate arranges a cover-up. Instead of subjecting Bo to the town’s praise as well as criticism, he tells Atticus, “Bob Ewell fell on his own knife… taking the one man who did you and this town great service and ‘drag’ him with his own. Shy ways into the limelight—to me, It’s a sin” (314-317).
Bo watches Jem as he sleeps, recovering from a broken arm in the attack, and places his hand lightly on Jem’s head. He then asks Scout to take him home. As she leads him out onto the balcony, she slips her hand into the crook of his arm. “… If Stephanie Crawford had looked out of her upstairs window, she would have seen Arthur Radley escorting me down the sidewalk, as any gentleman would” (320). Through the father’s act of atonement, Arthur “Boo” Radley achieved the apotheosis that every hero strives for, becoming better than he was, the man he was meant to be. Boo is elevated to this status by Atticus who shakes his hand in thanks, thanks him for saving his children, by Sheriff Tate who recognizes him as a hero but spares him the pain of the spotlight, and by Scout who publicly treats him as a gentleman.
The lives of the children, Scout and Jem, are the treasures they steal from the dragon’s enemy, Bob Ewell. Not only are they safe but Bob Ewell will no longer be a threat to the people of Maycomb. But it must also have its share in Elixir. Perhaps he will indeed return to the Radley house, never to be seen again, but he has finally had his day, his resurrection, and he has become a new man, a savior and a gentleman.
Campbell, Joseph. The hero with a thousand faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 1949.
Lee, Harper. Do not touch the nightingale. New York: Harper Collins, 1960.
O’Connor, Susan. The language dance. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2008.
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