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 hero’s deepest understanding of four elements of the journey: the sacred marriage, the father’s atonement, apotheosis, and the theft of elixir. While the monomyth’s journey follows a pattern that every heroic story follows, more or less, the character of Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s award-winning novel Kill a Mockingbird he is transformed through these stages into a stronger, life-changing person for the better in the town of Maycomb, Alabama.
the sacred marriage
The Sacred Marriage for Boo Radley occurs between two halves of the hero: the anima and the animus. As the call to adventure on this heroic journey begins, Boo has been jailed by his father for a misdemeanor, participating in the shenanigans of a gang who borrowed a flivver and broke the Ladies Law by yelling obscene language. As punishment, his gang members went to the state industrial school and got a good education, but at 17, Boo’s life outside of his house ended. “No one knew what form of intimidation Mr. Radley used to keep Boo out of sight, but Jem thought Mr. Radley kept him chained to the bed most of the time. Atticus said there were no… other ways to turn people into ghosts” (12). As the story begins, Boo is now in her late thirties and has had no communication with the outside world since her youth. He crosses the threshold into a new world, however, when one summer three kids, Scout, Jem and Dill, decide to push him out.
Only when Boo realizes what the children are up to does he begin to search for his soul: his need to protect and care for the children who wish to make him a part of their lives, though sometimes only in his imagination. He leaves gifts in the knot oak near his house, throws a blanket around Scout’s shoulders when Miss Maudie’s house burns down, roughly sews up Jem’s ripped trousers the night the three boys look out the back window of their house, and risks his own life to save his 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 valuable man whose priceless gifts offer children friendship and hope, 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 point in his life that he, too, was a good student. Among these gifts are two soap figures, carved with such skill by Boo himself that Scout and Jem can be recognized in these images. Other gifts include a ball of yarn and a pack of gum, luxuries during this Depression of the 1930s.
And the kids reciprocate with innocent playtime antics like One Man’s Family, where the three reenact the rumors they’ve heard about the Radleys, but also the actions taken to communicate with him: the failed attempt to deliver an ice cream treat via a note attached to a fishing pole and a thank-you note meant for the knot. The reader understands that Boo is watching them with interest and amusement, but also with concern for their welfare. The day Scout rolls the tire and ends up in Radley’s front yard, he hears a sound. “Someone inside the house was laughing” (45), and he suspects it’s Boo.
After his 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. However, Bob Ewell isn’t done and vows to retaliate against Atticus, who doesn’t take his threats seriously. One night in October, when Scout and Jem are coming home from the school pageant, a drunk Bob Ewell attacks them and tries to kill them. Boo defends the children and stabs Bob with a kitchen knife, killing him, Boo’s final act in the Holy Matrimony.
Harper Lee aptly describes the Radley family in two sentences: “The misery of that house began many years before Jem and I were born. Welcome anywhere in town, the Radleys kept to themselves, an unforgivable predilection in Maycomb” (10). After Boo was released after his gang’s flivver incident, Mr. Radley saw to it that he didn’t see his son again for fifteen years. In his suppressed anger from him, 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 stayed in the basement of the courthouse, but eventually returned home, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Before Boo answers the call to adventure, he has been passively living with an enemy, his father. In order for Boo to continue on the trip, the father figures and Boo must reconcile. He begins this process by offering gifts at the knot, not only imitating the actions of a generous and loving father, but also the ancient traditions between father and son. Atticus has allowed Jem to carry his pocket watch, which will eventually become his in the usual father-to-son transmission. When Boo puts his own, albeit broken, watch and chain into the knot, Jem decides he’d rather try to repair it and take this one with him. Boo’s broken watch indicates that time has practically stopped for Boo Radley at seventeen, but it is more specifically an indication of his Father Atonement, allowing him to make up for the losses, mistakes, cruelty of his own father and father figure, his brother Nathan. Boo passes his watch to Jem, who is like a son to him.
Mr. Radley dies but Nathan comes to take his place and imposes continued imprisonment on him. When Nathan discovers that Boo has been using the knot to communicate with the outside world, he fills the hole with cement. When Jem discovers that Nathan has filled in the hollow of a healthy tree, “he stayed there until dark… When we went into the house I saw that he had been crying; his face was dirty in all the right places, but I thought it was strange that I had not heard him” (71). This symbolic death for Boo in this deeper cave creates an even greater need to be reborn, and she accepts the challenge despite the dangers she must face later when she must slay the dragon.
By conquering the father figure through Boo’s reconciliation, the hero accesses 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 kids from Bob Ewell’s attack, Sheriff Heck Tate organizes a cover-up. Instead of subjecting Boo to the town’s praise, as well as scrutiny, he tells Atticus, “Bob Ewell fell on his knife…to take the one man who has done you and this town a great service and drag him with his timid ways into the spotlight; to me, that is a sin” (314-317).
Boo watches Jem as he sleeps, recovering from a broken arm in the attack, and gently places his hand on Jem’s head. He then asks Scout to take him home. As he leads him to the porch, he slips his hand into the crook of his arm. “…if Stephanie Crawford were looking out of the window upstairs from her, she would see Arthur Radley escorting me down the sidewalk, as she would any gentleman” (320). Through the act of Father Atonement, Arthur “Boo” Radley has achieved the apotheosis that every hero aspires to, to be 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 the spotlight, and by Scout, who treats him publicly as a gentleman.
The lives of the children, Scout and Jem, are the treasures that Boo steals from the enemy dragon, Bob Ewell. Not only are they safe, but Bob Ewell will no longer be a threat to the people of Maycomb. But Boo must also have his part in the Elixir. Indeed, he may return to the Radley home, never to be seen again, but he has finally had his day, the resurrection of him, and he has become a new man, a savior and a knight.
Campbell, Jose. The hero with a thousand faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 1949.
Read, Harpers. Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 1960.
O’Connor, Susan. language dance. Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2008.