Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.
As Jem and Scout educate Dill about their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley, Jem’s imagination builds on his notion that Boo is a “malevolent phantom.” The children play games that include acting out scenes involving the Radley family, and this is how they imagine the reclusive Boo. These images set the stage for the accumulation of figurative meaning around Boo, who becomes as much a symbol in the novel as he is a character. He changes from devil to angel, from sinner to saint, from foe to friend, and from threat to savior in the eyes of Scout and her cohorts.
“Someday, maybe, Scout can thank him for covering her up.”
After the fire at Miss Maudie’s house, Jem, Scout, and Atticus are in their kitchen having hot chocolate when Atticus notices that Scout is wrapped in a blanket that is not theirs. After some discussion, he realizes that it must have been Boo Radley who gave it to her, a protective act of kindness that foreshadows the final action of the novel. Boo has already endeared himself to the children by putting gifts in the knothole and sewing Jem’s pants. Figuratively, he turns from a symbol of superstition and fear to one of goodness and purity, becoming something like a guardian angel. This moment with Scout is part of this symbol’s evolution.
A strange small spasm shook him, as if he heard fingernails scrape slate, but as I gazed at him in wonder the tension slowly drained from his face. His lips parted into a timid smile, and our neighbor’s image blurred with my sudden tears.
This moment when Scout finally meets and speaks to Boo Radley is one of the pivotal moments of the narrative. At this point, Boo Radley changes from a symbol or idea into a real character for both Scout and the reader. Boo, who has existed like a ghost in the shadows throughout the story, becomes a real person made of flesh and blood. Scout observes his pale skin, his simple clothing, his colorless eyes, and his thin hair. His palms have left sweat streaks on the wall, an image so human and mundane that it carries the whole narrative with it into a gentle denouement.
People have a habit of doing everyday things even under the oddest conditions. I was no exception: “Come along, Mr. Arthur,” I heard myself saying, “you don’t know the house real well. I’ll just take you to the porch, sir.”
Earlier in the novel, Scout fantasizes about seeing Boo Radley sitting on his porch and saying “Good evening” to each other. In this moment, her fantasy becomes real as she leads him to a seat on her own porch. Soon, she will lead him into Jem’s room so that he can say goodnight to the boy he has saved, and after that, she will walk home with him, her hand in the crook of his arm. Boo Radley, now Mr. Arthur, has become fully human to Scout after all that has happened, and he is a symbol not only of goodness but of the human ability to empathize with and love even the people we may least expect to.
Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.
Here, the adult narrator Scout looks back on her childhood experience with Boo Radley with sadness and compassion. No longer a child, she views these memories with an understanding and depth that can only be gained over time. Despite having a flawed childhood and past, Boo is goodness personified and in many ways represents the symbolic heart of the novel. Readers may interpret Scout’s regret as a message: Take the time to give back what you receive.
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