Racism and injustice towards black Americans is synonymous with the Southern States of America in the 1930s; an example of this being the 1932 Scottsborough Trial in Alabama – where this novel is set; in which 3 men were accused and found guilty of raping two white women, without any clear evidence to suggest such actions took place. They were later acquitted however, Harper Lee uses this novel and indeed Jem to provide an insightful commentary into the unjust, undeserved, and scathing opinions that the white town folk of Maycombe, a small town in South Alabama, readily acted upon.
Jem is used by Harper Lee as an embodiment of innocence and at the same time as a narrative vehicle to highlight childish irrationalities; and how the racist views so common in the Southern States, and especially in places such as Maycombe, are little more than the irrational prejudices that Jem possesses. Atticus has raised Jem to be the way he is; moral, socially conscientious, and intellectually free as seen on page 308, “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” .
The novel represents Jem’s journey of realisation that his childish prejudices aren’t built on anything substantial rather they are simply an extension of what he has heard and see people say and do. Harper Lee seems to draw parallels between Jem’s prejudices and the virtually childish and ill-considered racist views of Maycombe’s townsfolk. At the beginning of the novel, Jem exhibits a clear air of naivety. He along
with Scout and Dill observe Boo Radley with caution, playing games, taunting him, observing him as if he were some strange creature, however, as time continues Jem begins to realise the true nature of Boo Radley, at least in part. When he is given back his trousers, this kind gesture moves Jem to tears. Throughout the novel Jem also acts a teacher to Scout, he acts as a sort of hero to her, and much of what she learns is directly influenced by him, however, it seems that perhaps as Scout is younger she has this revelation about the true nature of good in people before Jem.
Scout realises that Boo was in fact a good man at the end of the novel, however, Jem is left unconscious, perhaps reflecting that the future of civil rights in America is still far from certain. Another incident in which Jem reacts to racism is in Chapter 11 where Mrs Dubose tells Jem and Scout that Atticus is not any better than the “niggers and trash he works for”, at this point Jem loses his temper and destroys all of Mrs Dubose’s camelia bushes.
Here we see that Jem has a fierce sense of loyalty to his father and at the same time wants to confront any racist action full on, however, at times we see his inner struggle more clearly, depicting the civil rights struggle across America. On page 272 Jem suddenly becomes furious at any mention of the trial, “I never wanta hear about that courthouse again, ever, ever, you understand me? ” Here it seems that Jem has lost faith in humanity, and is clearly distressed at what has occurred.
It seems that Atticus’ influence on him has made him into a person who will fight for what he believes in, and is distraught when justice fails to prevail. Even before the end of the novel, Jem shows signs of having learned a positive lesson from the trial; for instance, at the beginning of Chapter 25 he refuses to let Scout squash a bug because it has done nothing to harm her, “Don’t do that Scout. Set him out on the back steps”. After seeing the unfair destruction of Tom Robinson, Jem now wants to protect the fragile and harmless.
The end of the novel brings the reader back to the start and gets us to examine the journey that Jem has undertaken. At the beginning of the novel we are told about all of Jem’s prejudices towards people such as Boo Radley yet by the end his views have changed completely with Scout saying, “Atticus he was real nice… ” This change in attitude amongst the children demonstrates that prejudices can be turned on their head, and Harper Lee uses Jem as a character of hope to emphasise that although at present (in the 1960s) we might not be quite ready for the Civil Rights Movement to take over we will be.
She highlights the fact that if a mere child can undergo this transformation so can America. In conclusion, Jem – Scout’s brother and constant playmate at the beginning of the novel, is something of a typical American boy; refusing to back down from dares and full of confidence. He is four years older than Scout, and throughout the novel he gradually separates himself from her games, but he remains her close companion and protector throughout.
Jem moves into adolescence during the novel, and his youthful innocence is shaken badly by the evil and injustice he perceives during the trial of Tom Robinson. However, Jem unlike the jaded Mr Raymond is not without hope. By the end of the novel, his childish prejudices are just a mere memory of his former self, the progression of which embodies the very journey of the civil rights movement in America in the decades before and after this book was published, the very journey which Harper Lee so attentively captures throughout her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.