On the first day of our discussion of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I asked my students who the main character was. That might seem like an odd question.
After all, the book is narrated by Scout, the 6-year-old daughter of Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly convicted of rape.
Some students argued that Scout was the main character. Others argued that the hero of the story was either Atticus or Tom.
A few offered the idea that the neighborhood phantom, Boo Radley, who saves both Scout and her older brother from murder, is the main character.
The book is divided into two parts. I told the students to read the first sentence of Part One.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
Then I told them to read the first sentence of Part Two.
“Jem was twelve. He was difficult to live with, inconsistent, moody.”
Both parts of the novel are declarations about Jem’s adolescence. Both parts of the novel also end with Jem.
As much as To Kill a Mockingbird deals with racism and injustice, it is a bildungsroman, a coming of age tale about how a young boy learns empathy and matures in the process.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus tells Scout, but her older brother is the one who takes that task to heart.
Jem is the one who weeps at Tom’s conviction, who sees the humanity in Boo Radley, who masters his childish need to strike back in anger when a racist morphine addict gives him a daily tongue lashing.
He represents all aspects of empathy – compassion, tolerance, self-control. It’s a trait in short supply in this angry political season.
Too many adults equate empathy with weakness – or see it as an impractical indulgence in a frightening world.
But empathy isn’t an indulgence – it’s a necessity for a humane, civilized society.
Children can learn empathy from direct instruction, the way Scout heard her father explain the “theory of mind,” the recognition that people hold beliefs and values that are different from our own.
Even more effective is to model empathy. Atticus Finch didn’t just talk about empathy; he lived it, offering dignity and respect to those who opposed him.
And a growing body of research shows that literary fiction such as To Kill a Mockingbird is also a powerful way to teach empathy – something English teachers have always known.
In an interview in The Atlantic, Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany summarized the role of literature this way: “If you are a fanatic, you will never appreciate literature. And if you appreciate literature, you will never be a fanatic. Fanaticism is about black and white: People are either good or bad. People are either with us or against us. On the other side, literature is absolutely the contrary. Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as better human beings.”
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.