To Kill a Mockingbird Mental Illness, Stigmas, and Theories

Everyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird could attest that one of the big themes in the book is racism and how it impacts people in negative ways. This race is mainly explored through Tom Robinson. While racism is heavily emphasized, there is another theme explored in the book that was a bit more subtle. Mental illness is not explicitly stated but could be attributed with the character Arthur “Boo” Radley. Both Tom Robinson and Arthur Radley are symbolized as mockingbirds, innocent people who have been hurt by society. At that the time in southern United States, being black and being mentally ill carried social stigma so both men were seen “defective”. In contrast to being non-white, having any psychological disorder still carries a heavy social stigma in modern times. As anvilicious the racism gets to some people, To Kill a Mockingbird is still relevant today and resonates to many people who have experienced racism personally or suffered from any mental disorder.

Arthur Radley could likely have social anxiety disorder and/or avoidant personality disorder based on his behavior throughout the novel and his reclusion. His timid demeanor and lack of social cohesion with others at the end provided support to Jem’s claims of him wanting to stay inside. Taking account of assertions about his dad locking his son up, it could be implied that psychological abuse from his father negatively impacted his mental state that his desire to integrate into society waned. The fear of being negatively evaluated from social interactions could possibly be his jailer. He could be oversensitive of what people what react when they see him venturing outside of his house. As he is implied to have seclude himself on his own, it is unlikely he would be unable to function in society immediately if he were to ever rejoin. However, Arthur was probably a normal person before his forced isolation by his family and self imprisonment.

When Scout first encountered Boo, he was seen standing in the corner as if trying to fuse himself to the white walls to disppear. He never spoke even once except for one line, which he spoke in a timid manner. The whole time he was around the Finches, Arthur seemed nervous since direct quotes described him as “so shaken” that he had to sit again and he was uncertain of how to conduct himself around others. He was seen as taking a handkerchief and wiping his forehead.

“When Boo Radley shuffled to his feet, light from the living room windows glistened on his forehead. Every move he made was uncertain, as if he were not sure his hands and feet could make proper contact with the things he touched. He coughed his dreadful raling cough, and was so shaken he had to sit down again. His hand searched for his hip pocket, and he pulled out a handkerchief. He coughed into it, then he wiped his forehead.” (Lee)

Here are the symptoms and behaviors that Arthur displays in support of having social anxiety in the book.

Social Anxiety Symptoms and Experiences:


  • Fear of situations in which you may be judged
  • Worrying about embarrassing or humiliating yourself
  • Intense fear of interacting or talking with strangers
  • Fear that others will notice that you look anxious
  • Fear of physical symptoms that may cause you embarrassment, such as blushing, sweating, trembling or having a shaky voice
  • Avoiding doing things or speaking to people out of fear of embarrassment
  • Avoiding situations where you might be the center of attention
  • Having anxiety in anticipation of a feared activity or event
  • Enduring a social situation with intense fear or anxiety
  • Spending time after a social situation analyzing your performance and identifying flaws in your interactions
  • Expecting the worst possible consequences from a negative experience during a social situation


  • Blushing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Trouble catching your breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Feeling that your mind has gone blank
  • Muscle tension


  • Interacting with unfamiliar people or strangers
  • Attending parties or social gatherings
  • Going to work or school
  • Starting conversations
  • Making eye contact
  • Dating
  • Entering a room in which people are already seated
  • Returning items to a store
  • Eating in front of others
  • Using a public restroom

Old Mr. Radley’s Influence on the Radley Brothers Theory

The rigid, strict lifestyle and belief imposed by the brothers’ father could be a significant factor in molding the Radley brothers’ characterizations. Old Mr. Radley, described as a foot washing baptist, was an authoritative man who believed pleasure is a sin. As such, Arthur’s early home life would not likely to be a pleasant one. His father’s imposition of the lifestyle and belief could have met with opposition by both his sons, Nathan and Arthur. Both brothers reacted differently from their father’s rule. It is possible Nathan strived to emulate his father and played as the behaving son to avoid the abuse by his father. While it would be more obvious that Arthur would be heavily negatively affected by his father’s influence, Nathan Radley also was possibly damaged as he might have use the opportunity to move to Pensacola when he came of age to escape his father. Arthur in contrast took to rebelling his father’s rule by joining a trouble making gang when he was a teen to experience some freedom he was deprived of. Due to his passive personality, it is likely he was a tagalong in the gang and had little ability in resisting his punishment of forced isolation for his rebellion until the stabbing incident.

When their father died, Nathan was summoned to return to Maycomb to become jailer to his younger brother. Nathan could have resent his situation and possibly his brother for bringing him back to a place and lifestyle he was escaped from in the first place. His resentment might have resulted his decision in also abuse Arthur. As much as he like to think he had little common with his father, he is as much as his father due to him executing the same methods in keeping Arthur Radley locked up.

Modern Social Stigmas

Considering there are so many misconceptions, lack of empathy, and ignorance pertaining to mental illness persisting to modern day, Arthur Radley would still be viewed today as a deranged, strange maniac.

An example of misunderstanding of his situation would be that some view that he might be mentally retarded despite winning a spelling bee in his childhood, which would implied Arthur had at least average intelligence. His quiet, timid temperament and uncommunicative nature could have led some to the conclusion that Arthur has low intelligence. This reflects current society evaluations on the correlations between communication and intelligence. The more communicative one is, the higher the perception of intelligence.

In fact, to some, Arthur might be viewed more negatively than in the past. In a world of increasingly emphasis sharing our personal lives in social media and decreasing value of privacy, his reclusion would be looked at even more odd choice and derided. Most people would have little understanding of the reasons of secluding oneself regardless of whether one is mentally ill or not.

Furthermore, there is rise of pedophile paranoia in the United States ascribed to grown men. A man seen talking to small children could be seen as suspicious despite no evidence of narrating anything suspicions in the first place. Without knowing the identity of the character Arthur and the context in To Kill a Mockingbird, a grown man giving gifts to children and watching them play outside from his window would seem creepy to some in the current world.

The point of the matter would be that his behavior would be poorly understood regardless if the conclusion leads to mental disorder or not. It is not definite if he is even mentally ill as there was little screen time. If he is indeed mentally ill, his situation would definitely support the theme to put themselves in someone’s shoes even if that someone would be very different from you or occupy in lower social status, not just exclusive to race.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s