To Kill a Mockingbird: Boo Radley's Supreme Ordeal on the Hero's Journey

To Kill a Mockingbird: Boo Radley’s Supreme Ordeal on the Hero’s Journey

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 expresses the deeper understanding of the hero in four elements of the journey: The Sacred Marriage, Father Atonement, Apotheosis, and Elixir Theft. While the monomyth journey follows a pattern that every hero story follows, more or less, the character of Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is transformed through these stages into a stronger person who changes life for the better for the town of Maycomb, Alabama.

The Sacred Marriage

The Sacred Marriage for Boo Radley occurs between two halves of the hero: the anima and animus. When the call to adventure begins in this hero journey, Boo has been imprisoned by his father for a minor crime, participating in the mischief of a gang who borrowed a flivver and broke the Ladies Law by yelling obscene language. As punishment, his gang friends went to the state industrial school and got a good education, but at age 17, Boo’s life outside his home ended. “Nobody knew what form of intimidation Mr. Radley employed to keep Boo out of sight, but Jem figured that Mr. Radley kept him chained to the bed most of the time. Atticus said no… there were other ways of making people into ghosts” (12). When the story opens, Boo is now in his thirties and has had no communication with the outside world since his youth. He crosses the threshold into a new world, however, when one summer three children–Scout, Jem, and Dill, decide to make him come out.

It is only when Boo becomes aware of what the children are doing that he begins to seek out his anima–his need to protect and care for the children who wish to make him a part of their lives, even if sometimes only in their imagination. He leaves gifts in the knothole of the oak tree near his house, he puts a philadelphia phillies hawaiian shirt around Scout’s shoulders when Miss Maudie’s house burns, he crudely sews Jem’s ripped breeches the night the three children look in the back window of his house, and he risks his own life to save theirs from Bob Ewell one October night.

Boo Radley is a half-finished man, and the Sacred Marriage of his anima and animus helps him discover the truth about himself. He is a man of worth whose gifts of value offer friendship and hope to the children, but also a sense of who Boo is–two Indian Head pennies that bring long life and good health and a spelling medal that shows at one time in his life, he too was a good student. Among these gifts are two soap dolls, carved so skillfully by Boo himself that Scout and Jem can recognize themselves in these images. Other gifts include a ball of twine and a pack of gum, luxuries during this 1930s Depression.

And the children reciprocate with innocent playtime antics like One Man’s Family where the three reenact the rumors they’ve heard about the Radleys but also actions taken to reach out to him–the failed attempt to deliver an invitation for ice cream via a note attached to a fishing pole and a thank you note intended for the knothole. The reader understands that Boo is watching them with interest and amusement but also with concern for their well being. The day Scout rolls in the tire and ends up in the Radley’s front yard, she hears a sound. “Someone inside the house was laughing” (45), and she suspects it is Boo.

After their father unsuccessfully defends a black man,Tom Robinson, from Bob Ewell’s false accusation of raping his daughter, Tom goes to prison, unconvinced that an appeal will free him, and tries to escape only to be shot seventeen times. Bob Ewell isn’t finished, however, and vows to retaliate against Atticus, who doesn’t take his threats seriously. One October night as Scout and Jem are walking home from the school pageant, a drunken Bob Ewell attacks and tries to kill them. Boo defends the children and stabs Bob with a kitchen knife, killing him, Boo’s final act in the Sacred Marriage.

Father Atonement

Harper Lee describes the Radley family aptly in two sentences, “The misery of that house began many years before Jem and I were born. The Radleys, welcome anywhere in town, kept to themselves, a predilection unforgivable in Maycomb” (10). After Boo was released following his gang’s flivver incident, Mr. Radley saw to it that his son was not seen again for fifteen years. In his pent-up anger, Boo was thirty-three years old when he stabbed his father’s leg with the scissors he was using to cut the newspaper for his scrapbook. Boo was housed in the basement of the courthouse but eventually returned home where he remained the rest of his life.

Before Boo answers the call to adventure, he has been living passively with an enemy, his father. In order for Boo to continue on the journey, the father figures and Boo must be reconciled. He begins this process with the offering of gifts in the knothole, not only imitating the actions of a generous and loving father but also the long-held traditions between father and son. Atticus has allowed Jem to carry his pocket watch, which will eventually become his in the customary passing down from father to son. When Boo places in the knothole his own watch and chain, although broken, Jem decides he would rather try to repair it and carry this one. Boo’s broken watch indicates that time virtually stopped for Boo Radley at age seventeen, but it is more specifically an indication of his Father Atonement, allowing him to make up for the losses, the mistakes, the cruelty of his own father and father figure, his brother Nathan. Boo passes down his watch to Jem, who is like a son to him.

Mr. Radley dies but Nathan comes to take his place and impose on him continued imprisonment. When Nathan discovers that Boo has been using the knothole to communicate with the outside world, he fills the hole with cement. When Jem discovers that Nathan has filled in the hole of a healthy tree, he “stood there until nightfall… When we went in the house I saw he had been crying; his face was dirty in the right places, but I thought it odd that I had not heard him” (71). This symbolic death for Boo in this inmost cave creates an even greater necessity for rebirth, and he accepts the challenge despite the dangers he must later encounter when he must slay the dragon.


In conquering the father figure through Boo’s reconciliation, the hero is permitted to a higher plane. The fact that he destroys the father who physically abuses and betrays his own children, especially Mayella, and attempts to kill Atticus’s children contributes to his own Father Atonement. When Boo rescues the children from Bob Ewell’s attack, Sheriff Heck Tate arranges a cover-up. Rather than subject Boo to the praise of the town as well as the scrutiny, he tells Atticus, “Bob Ewell fell on his knife… taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight–to me, that’s a sin” (314-317).

Boo watches Jem as he is sleeping, recuperating from a broken arm in the attack, and puts his hand lightly on Jem’s head. He then asks Scout to take him home. When she leads him out to the porch, she slips her hand into the crook of his arm. “… if Stephanie Crawford was watching from her upstairs window, she would see Arthur Radley escorting me down the sidewalk, as any gentleman would do” (320). Through the act of Father Atonement, Arthur “Boo” Radley has achieved the Apotheosis to which every hero aspires, to become better than he was, the person he was meant to be. Boo is elevated to this status by Atticus who shakes his hand in thanks, acknowledging him for saving his children, by Sheriff Tate who recognizes him as a hero but spares him the pain of limelight, and by Scout who publicly treats him as a gentleman.

Elixir Theft

The lives of the children, Scout and Jem, are the treasures Boo steals from the dragon enemy, Bob Ewell. Not only are they safe but Bob Ewell will no longer be a menace to the people of Maycomb. But Boo must have his share as well in the Elixir. He may indeed return to the Radley home, 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. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Collins, 1960.

O’Connor, Susan. Dance of Language. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2008.

write by Milcah

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