What is empathy? (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Book Review)


Empathy is the ability to “walk in someone else's shoes” and understand what they are feeling. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is a novel that thoroughly goes over the importance of empathizing with one another. In the novel, Atticus, a just and wise lawyer always imparts valuable lessons to his children, Jem and Scout. Harper Lee illustrates the importance of empathy by showing the character development in Atticus’s two children, Jem and Scout. 

To start off, as time progresses through the novel, Jem encounters some hardships that lead to his growth in maturity, gaining the ability to empathize. In chapter one, Jem’s reputation of always completing a dare got the best of him and he “threw open the gate and sped to the side of the house, slapped it with his palm and ran back past us, not waiting to see if his foray was successful… as we stared down the street we thought we saw an inside shutter move. Flick. A tiny, an almost invisible movement, and the house was still.” (Pg. 16). When Jem runs past Scout and Dill “not wanting to see if his foray was successful”, this indicates that all Jem was thinking about was completing and getting his dare over with, not even stopping to think about how the Radleys would feel about the invasion of their property. By starting off the novel with Jem having no sense of empathy, Harper Lee further accentuates the importance of empathy when she transforms Jem into an empathetic young man at the end of the novel. When Jem found out that the jury announced Tom “guilty” for something he didn’t do, he started sympathizing with Tom, now knowing that the world is unjust. After taking this “hard pill to swallow”, it is shown he is developing and becoming a better person when he stops Scout from killing a rolly polly and says, “Don’t do that, Scout. Set him out on the back steps...because they don’t bother you.” (Pg. 272-273). Harper Lee specifically uses a small bug, a roly-poly, and it’s significant because something as tiny as a roly-poly, we would typically find it unimportant whether or not it lives, but the fact that Jem cares about the well being of a random bug and empathizes with it shows how far he has come in a sense of empathy. He is able to recognize how harming anyone or anything is bad, and in general, it is important because differentiating the good and bad can help you to become more moral and make better decisions in the future. 

Yes, Jem has grown in a sense of empathy and maturity, but Scout has also shown great character development over the course of the story.

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