"Coming of Age" theme in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

Essay by Anonymous UserCollege, UndergraduateA+, December 1996

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There comes a time is each person's life when they reach the point where they are no

longer children, but adults. The transition from a child into a young adult is often

referred to as the 'coming of age,' or growing up. The time when this transition occurs is

different in everyone, since everyone is an individual and no two people are alike.

Certain children reach this stage through a tragic, painful event which affects them to

such extent that they are completely changed. Other children reach this time by simply

growing older and having a better understanding of the world around them. The coming

of age really is indefinite and cannot be marked in general overview. This stage in life is

one of the most important and most popular themes in literature. The coming of age

theme is found in one of the one of the best coming to age stories that have ever been

written. Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is a sensitive touching portrayal of a

young boy who grows up through shocking yet realistic events.

Although many people are only aware of the coming of age theme through

literature and other forms of entertainment, there is also a very realistic part to this event

in a person's life which is often ignored. The coming of age is an event which is often

celebrated in many different cultures, through rituals or ceremonies. The rituals, also

known as passage rites, mark the passing of a person from one stage of life to the next:

birth, infancy, childhood, adulthood, old age, and death. The coming of age is celebrated

along with birth, and death because it is known as a universal life crises. Evoking

anxiety, these crises often elicit passage rites. Arnold Van Gennep stated that 'Passage

rituals have three steps: separation from society; inculcation-transformation; and return to

society in the new status.' (1995, Grolier Encyclopedia)

All passage rituals serve certain universal functions. 'They serve to dramatize the

encounter of new responsibilities, opportunities, dangers. They alleviate disruption in the

equilibrium of the community. They affirm community solidarity, and the sacredness of

common values.' (1995, Grolier Encyclopedia)

In addition, cultures use initiation ceremonies to mark the transition from

childhood to adult status. Rites for males are usually more elaborate and dramatic and

generally involve the community more than do those for females. Among the African

Gusii, for example, girls are at about age nine, boys at twelve years old; Thonga boys

may be sixteen. Boys rites often involve seclusion from women, hazing by older males,

test of manliness, and genital operations, including circumcision. Girls rites are just as

bad if not worse with things like removal of the clitoris. In some places in North

America, the ritual is individual where as in Africa and Oceania the ritual can be

collective. A plain Indian adolescent boy undertakes a vision quest; he goes out alone

into the wilderness, endures hardship, and seeks a vision from his animal guardian spirit;

if he gets one, he returns a man.

Yet a different way for these rituals is group rituals. These often takes months or

even years, as among many Australian aboriginal tribes. Novices learn great quantities of

information and obey countless taboos. Instructors are men who are strangers to boys.

Ritual pulls the boy from childhood, especially from his mother. He moves from the

category of women and privileged children toward the privileged one of the adult males.

Such rites maintain adult male togetherness and strengthen cultural continuity. They

resolve boys conflicts about sexual identity and establish clear attitudes toward fathers

and mothers. Such rites dramatize the power of older over younger males and state that

'only women can make babies: but only men can make men.' (1995, Grolier


Such passage rites symbolize death of the child and rebirth as a man, as well as male

envy of females. Versions in modern Western society includes religious, confirmation,

fraternity initiation, and military training.

In addition to the different ways that culture celebrates the coming of age it is

also one of the worlds most popular and beloved themes in literature. 'The Circus' is a

touching story about a man's kindness and how the realization of this played an important

part of his son's coming age. In Dan Clark's 'The Circus' , it is obvious how this young

man realizes what being kind really means. Clark states that 'We didn't go to the Circus

that night but we didn't go without.' (1995, pg. 4) quote demonstrates that the young

man realizes that it is more important to be generous than it was to go to the circus. This

was the first step of this young man's transition into the adult life. More often than not,

the plot, characters, theme and conflicts in literature deal with the theme coming of age,

are very realistic.

Yet another story is Gary Paulsen's 'Hatchet' which is a story about one boy who

must survive in the wilderness, with only a hatchet as a weapon. This is a story of

courage about how one child was forced to transform into an adult in order to endure the

circumstances surrounding him. Brian Robeson was stranded on an island, after his

plane crashed down while traveling to see his father. He had no food, now way of

communication and only a small hatchet to save his life. Through terrifying events,

'Hatchet' is the story of one man's struggle to survive. It is obvious how Brian Robeson

was forced to 'come of age' or 'grow up.' He boarded the plan that would change his

life forever, as a child, and returned home a grown man. The circumstances Brian was

put under after the plane crashed changed his life forever. When he returned home, he

looked at things from a different perspective and was not quick to take small things for

granted .

Lastly, Hugh Maclennan's story 'Explosion' is a story about a young boy named

Roddie Wain, who was late for school on the famous morning that Mont Blanc crashed

into another ship on the Halifax harbor, causing monstrous destruction. Roddie Wain

begins his journey of coming of age on this morning when he is faced with the

continuance of death, screams, and shrieks, surrounding him. Through the days events,

this child grows in to a young man through a series of shocking and terrifying events.

Near the beginning of the story, Roddie is only a child who was late for school, and

knows he is not in trouble due to the tornado that just passed because of the explosion.

He is happy that he will not be in trouble. By the end of the story, he wishes he was back

in school and in trouble rather than being faced with the horrible sight of death and

blood. An the end of the story it is also rather obvious that he is not only saying that he

wants to be back in school, he is also saying that he wants to be a child again. Something

impossible, after all his has seen and been through. The theme coming of age is found

over and over again in literature, but each time we learn something new. Humankind too

comes of age with each new story, facing the universal process of coming of age to repeat

itself throughout a lifetime.

Furthermore, Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the best

coming of age stories ever written. It is a sensitive, touching portrayal of a young boy

who comes of age through shocking, yet realistic events. Through Harper Lee's story we

see how one boy, Jem Finch, changed from a young child who played make believe, to a

young man looking for justice, after an amazingly thrilling summer when a boy was

changed into a man.

The first summer passed and Jem Finch was ten years old and afraid of old ghost

rumours. The second summer passed and Jem was eleven; he enacted a drama from his

imagination in his front yard along with Scout and Dill. Still summertime, and they

tormented a man by sticking a note on the end of a fishing pole, trying to persuade the

man to come out. Still summertime and Jem, Scout and Dill tormented the man yet again

by invading his privacy and trespassing. It was fall, and Jem stood in his front yard as

tears of sorrow fell down his face, while Nathan Radley cut of his only communication

with Boo Radley. It was winter, and Jem and Scout sat outside, watching as a house

burned down and a ghost threw a blanket over Scout. It was winter, and Jem stood

prouder than ever, as he watched his father kill an infested, dying dog. It was spring, and

Jem raged against an old lady by destroying her roses, kicked his sister to the ground in

fury and helped her back up. It was summertime, Jem saved his father's life as well as

Tom Robinson's. It was summer, and Jem sat and watched the trial which would change

his life, turn him into a man. It was summertime still, and the justice system that Jem

had so much faith in, let him down and broke his heart. Jem stood in the courtroom as

tears strolled down his face for Tom Robinson, and what the justice system had done to


It was summertime still, and a young man fought to change the justice system, and to

make things right, giving everyone hope for the future. It was fall, and a young man ran

made with rage when his sister mentioned the trial and the courthouse. It was fall, and

Jem's life was saved be the man who had once feared so much. Through these touching,

traumatic events, it is easy to see how one young care-free boy, turned into a young man

full of rage, let down by the justice system. Harper Lee's story How To Kill A

Mockingbird is a representation of reality, since, for Jem to grow up he had to face many

heart wrenching conflicts which turned him into a young man. Harper Lee's story was

indeed touching, realistic and unforgettable.

In conclusion, coming of age is an important and unique universal experience.

Coming of age is a preferred theme among many authors , all over the world. Although

it is a very popular theme, it is important not to forget the traditions and ceremonies

behind it. This theme was beautifully portrayed by Harper Lee's novel To Kill A

Mockingbird. Every child most come of age at some point in their lives, whether

through a horrible ordeal, or by the passing of time, but what is most important is that

you learn from it and carry it throughout your life. Always remember that everything that

happens during a lifetime is important and happens for a reason. The process of coming

of age is repeated throughout that lifetime, so take it and learn from it.