In To Kill a Mockingbird, children live in an inventive world where mysteries abound but little exists to actually cause them harm. Scout and Jem spend much of their time inventing stories about their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, gleefully scaring themselves before rushing to the secure, calming presence of their father, Atticus. As the novel progresses, however, the imaginary threat that Boo Radley poses pales in comparison to the real dangers Jem and Scout encounter in the adult world. The siblings’ recognition of the difference between the two pushes them out of childhood and toward maturity—and as they make that transition, Boo Radley, their childhood bogeyman, helps serve as link between their past and their present.

The games and stories Jem and Scout create around Boo Radley depict him as a source of violence and danger. However, though these inventions seem designed to prove the children’s braveness and maturity, they paradoxically prove that Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill fundamentally remain children. Their stories are gruesome, and the thrill of their games—such as touching the side of Boo’s house—comes from the danger they imagine they would face if Boo were to catch them. However, the children are able to indulge in wild imaginings and take what they perceive as risky chances only because they feel completely safe in the care of Atticus, who protects them from a dark, dangerous world. The threatening, menacing Boo thus remains firmly entrenched in their childhood worldview, where adults are infallible and all-powerful.

When adult protection breaks down in the novel, Jem and Scout get their first taste of true danger, which is different from the imagined dangers they’d attributed to Boo Radley. The fire at Miss Maudie’s, Mrs. Dubose’s grisly death, and the violence and unrest that trails in the wake of the Tom Robinson case introduce real misfortune and anxiety into their lives. For the first time, adults are frightened and sad along with the children, and therefore cannot be counted on to provide security or refuge. Boo Radley, once such a threatening presence, now seems like a remnant of a more innocent time. The contrast between then and now seems all the more stark because Boo Radley remains in their lives, a constant reminder of how things had been before.

Faced with real dangers, Jem and Scout must tap into new levels of maturity in order to deal with tragedy, new social challenges, and increased familial expectations. As their relationship with Atticus and the larger adult community changes, their relationship with Boo changes as well. Once just a creepy, mostly abstract figure, Boo begins playing a more active role in the children’s lives, first by protecting Scout with a blanket during Miss Maudie’s fire and then by protecting Jem and Scout from an attack by Bob Ewell. Boo had been an integral part of Jem and Scout’s childhood, and, in the midst of their burgeoning adulthood, he serves as a link between their past and their present. Once an imagined enemy and a source of perceived danger, Boo transforms into a true friend and ally, helping them at crucial moments in their transition from childhood to maturity.

The children’s early perspective of “danger” centered on Boo Radley, and only by understanding the contrast between these imagined dangers and the real dangers of the adult world can they pass from childhood into adulthood. But the children’s shifting interactions with Boo points to another element of maturity as well: the capacity for empathy. Once simply an eccentric figure in the children’s games, Boo ultimately becomes a true human being to them—one who has endured more than his fair share of tragedy and deserves his fair share of honor, respect, and affection.