Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird: Farewell to Childhood
Often, there is no greater power that influences an individual’s development than his or her surroundings. It is one’s society that establishes what is generally accepted and how one comes to act within that society. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the author Harper Lee develops the idea that an individual’s perspective of their world can transform due to the circumstances that they are exposed to in their environment. The character Dill demonstrates this idea well, since he develops in significant ways throughout the story.
Charles Baker Harris, commonly known as Dill in Lee Harper’s novel, is a character with a small perspective. This is due to being young and unexposed to different truths of life. As a result, he has predisposed ideas of people and is closed-minded. When he hears the rumours regarding Boo Radley, he reacts with childlike fascination and believes every word. His small perspective has not yet allowed him to question points of life. Additionally, with this fascination, he becomes determined to persuade Boo Radley to leave his home without consideration of how this might terrorize Boo Radley. It is evident at the beginning that his childlike ways make him determined and ready to believe what others have to say. His physical size in comparison to Jem and Scout represents how small his perspective is compared to theirs. Scout and Jem are larger than him, and so are their perspectives. They are more open-minded than he is. Scout states that “he was a year my senior but I towered over him” (9).
At the beginning of this book, Dill has a child’s innocence, energy, and wonder of what surrounds him. In the first few chapters of the story, Scout says that “beautiful things floated around his dream head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions” (144). From the way Scout describes his nature, it is evident that he is a clever and imaginative child. Furthermore, in the story, he allows his imagination to overpower him when it comes to Boo Radley. Dill lets the stories take over his head and he becomes fascinated with the phantom described to him. This further proves his childlike innocence because he is willing to listen without doubt of the prejudice before him. Dill’s lack of exposure to the true consequences of an unquestioning attitude allows him to maintain a light and carefree view of the world. Before the trial, he is one that is still naive to the darker parts of the world such as racism.
Dill changes when conflict arises in the form of Tom Robinson’s trial. Prior to this, he does not show signs of concern regarding actions of prejudice towards others. For instance, in the first few chapters of the novel, he continuously plots ways to terrorize Boo Radley, and has an obsession with him. Before witnessing the trial, Dill never acknowledges that actions which dehumanize a person may have cruel effects for that individual. For example, he does not consider how his plots might impact Boo Radley. Previously, Dill only cared about others for his own advantage. However, seeing Tom Robinson being patronizingly spoken to by Mr. Gilmer triggers a change within Dill. Mr. Gilmer’s lack of courtesy is evident for Tom Robinson when he refers to Tom as “boy” instead of “sir” and sneers with each question. Dill’s recognition of this prompts him to cry and become frustrated. In the trial, this reaction shows how his environment exposes him to a sad reality he has been living in. Even after Scout tries to comfort him, it is clear that he has seen far too much to return to his ignorant ways. In reply to witnessing the disrespect that Tom Robinson experiences, Dill proclaims “I don’t care one speck. It ain’t right to do ‘em that way. Hasn’t anybody got any business talkin’ like that–it just makes me sick” (266). Prior to this, he has never stopped to think about whether or not one’s actions are wrong. This is evident in previous chapters because Jem’s previous interferences with his plans regarding Boo Radley do not impact him. However, this prejudice he witnesses catalyzes a change by opening his eyes and widening his perspective. Dill begins to develop empathy and feel for others besides himself.
In the end, Dill’s character evolves from one that maintains a happy and carefree view of the world to one that is cynical and tired of what surrounds him. The deep rooted racism within Maycomb causes Tom Robinson to lose his trial and be sent to jail. Dill’s realization of this destroys his childlike optimism; as a result, he recognizes the detrimental consequences of prejudicial actions. Along with this, Dill begins to acknowledge negative parts within his life and steers his focus from what a child sees to what an adult is able to recognize. By betting that his Aunt Rachel “drinks a pint for breakfast every morning […] [and knowing that] she drinks two glasses full” (287), he even makes Aunt Alexandra, an adult, uncomfortable. Hearing Dill bluntly speak of his Aunt’s drinking habits causes an uneasy Aunt Alexandra to plead, “Don’t talk like that, Dill. […] It’s not becoming to a child. It’s—cynical” (287). Through this description, it is confirmed that Dill has moved from a childlike naive perspective to one that has realized the darkness in the world and is no longer able to ignore it. By the end, Dill no longer speaks of adventurous plans against Boo Radley, nor does he refer to the positive side of things. The manner in which he speaks is no longer ignorant because his perspective has widened as he addresses darker matters that occur in his daily life.
After Scout, Jem, and Dill pay a visit to Miss Maudie’s and hear her words of encouragement, Dill still leaves feeling hopeless towards the world. He no longer views it with optimism. Because he sees that the power of prejudice in the world is great, he succumbs to a weary attitude. Even Atticus, the most respected man and lawyer in town, could not waver Maycomb’s racism after being presented with strong evidence which clearly suggests Tom Robinson’s innocence against Bob Ewell’s obviously weak argument. Following the visit, Dill comes to the conclusion that he wants to be a clown when he grows up. He elaborates further after hearing protests from Jem by explaining that instead of being laughed at by folks, he would “Be a new kind of clown. […] [He would] stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks” (290). This is because he believed that “every one of ‘em oughta be ridin’ broomsticks” (290). Before the trial, Dill is willing to take action for results he wants to see happen. Specifically, he would concoct plans with Jem and Scout to encourage Boo Radley to leave his home because he was fascinated with Boo Radley. However, in this scene, near the end of the story, he has lost his eagerness to take action. Although he wants the world to change its views and is angered by prejudice, he no longer has the energy for it and would rather just laugh at how ridiculous it is. Dill’s hopeful perspective has shifted to a disheartened outlook of the world due to his exposure in the environment of Maycomb.
With all this in mind, Lee proves the idea that one’s perception of the world may shift due to what they witness in their environment. Although Dill started out as a bright and generally positive child, Maycomb causes him to become a dispirited character in this novel. One’s exposure to specific surroundings holds great power over the character that one evolves.
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