QUOTATION EXCERPT from To Kill a Mockingbird:
The Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house. Walking south, one faced its porch; the sidewalk turned and ran beside the lot. The house was low, was once white with a deep front porch and green shutters, but had long ago darkened to the color of the slate-gray yard around it. Rain-rotted shingles drooped over the eaves of the veranda; oak trees kept the sun away. The remains of a picket drunkenly guarded the front yard “swept” yard that was never swept-where johnson grass and rabbit-tobacco grew in abundance.
Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work. Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events: people’s chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Barker’s Eddy, people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions. A Negro would not pass the Radley Place at night, he would cut across to the sidewalk opposite and whistle as he walked. The Maycomb school grounds adjoined the back of the Radley lot; from the Radley chickenyard tall pecan trees shook their fruit into the schoolyard, but the nuts lay untouched by the children: Radley pecans would kill you. A baseball hit into the Radley yard was a lost ball and no questions asked. (Page 8-9)
CLOSE CRITICAL ANALYSIS / EXPLICATION
The setting of the Radley house is described by Scout as the haunted house that is in close (perhaps too close) proximation to “our” [the Finch’s] house. Years have worn the home from its once white, innocent status of belonging in the neighbourhood to its derelict and segregated condition that now exists with its “darkened … slate-grey”, “rain-rotted”, and “drooped” haunting. The house is clearly neglected and the children’s perspective of it is not so much of an eye-sore, but as an ever-present threat and terror in their life. However, it is not only the children who fear the home; the fear is perpetuated by the adults, to mythic proportions. Folktales of the “malevolent phantom” – Boo Radley – who silently haunts the neighbourhood with his occasional visitings around the neighbourhood, under the shroud of darkness, terrorizes the children and reinforces their belief that the house is haunted and the “Boo” must be feared or else the forces of evil will prey upon the children. The perspective of fear also arouses intense entertainment and curiosity within the children. Their imagination runs away with these tales as they attempt to torment the “phantom” in the hope of verifying the truth. The “heroic” attempts of the children reinforce the victimization of Boo as being an outcast, undeserving of dignity or respect by the residents of Maycomb.
Thus the conflict of the novel – societal prejudice – is established through this passage with the maligned Boo, and then later paralleled through the scapegoat of Tom Robinson during the trial; thus, the perspective of a society controlled by their fears initialized early in the novel through the character of Boo. As such, a prejudicial perspective is bred by fear, and the haunted house symbolically reinforces the childishness of such fear. Such childishness is ignorant; ignorance breeds disrespect towards anything that is unknown or misunderstood. Consequently, the passage clearly characterizes the immaturity of the Maycomb society and foreshadows what will happen to Tom Robinson in the hands of this society.
Finally, the Radley’s porch becomes a powerful symbol by the end of the novel, offering hope. When Scout returns Boo to his home, her fear has disappeared and her perspective has dramatically changed: “Atticus was right. …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.” (Chapter 31, page 279) For years the children challenged their fears to get a glimpse inside the “haunted house”, but now Scout stands on the porch looking out on the neighbourhood from Boo’s perspective. She “see’s” through Boo’s eyes that the real evil and horror is the prejudicial perspectives of the society, not the “malevolent phantom” within the Radley home. This act creates a profound shift in Scout’s perspective and is a moment of maturation as she moves past her fear, and comes to understanding.