Childhood is the most carefree part of a person’s life. Children are instinctively pure creatures, unperturbed by the troubles that may surround them. Like the quote above states, the incidents they go through are simply black and white, good and bad. However, as they grow older, they lose their innocent state of mind. They are suddenly thrown into a world where they are constantly struggling to defeat the odds and are desperately seeking answers to life’s questions. Is there anyone that helps them during this difficult time, to see the “shades of gray?” Of course, there can be many answers to this question, but I think the single most influential person who guides a child through this stage is a family member.
Family is one of the most important factors that help shape a person’s life. In the critically lauded and moving tales of “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya, the protagonists are all children, newly thrust into the world, faced with extreme obstacles and situations that test their character. Each one deals with these obstacles in different ways because of their different personalities. However, one thing is certain–the main characters of both novels overcome their hurdles and develop a strong level of morality along the way because they are guided by the love, understanding, and experience of their family members.
A major theme in To Kill a Mockingbird is the moral nature of humans. At the beginning of the novel, Scout and Jem live in their childhood world, intuitively assuming that everyone is good because not once in their lives have they seen what evil truly is. As Jem and Scout transition from their naïveté and innocence, Atticus is there every step of the way, in order to guide them towards the right path. He is neither the strictest parent nor the most affectionate, but the reader comes to see Atticus as the noblest man and father one could ever encounter. As Tom Robinson’s trial looms around the corner, Atticus is worried that Scout and Jem are too young to understand the true significance of the trial. He confides in Uncle Jack, saying that he doesn’t wish his children to catch “Maycomb’s usual disease.” (page 88) He means that he doesn’t want Jem and Scout to be influenced by the prejudice of close-minded Southern folks. He doesn’t want to shield them, however, from something that is inevitable. Instead, he lets them make their own decisions regarding life, but is there to help them distinguish right from wrong.
Atticus never forces his children to do anything or reprimands them. “‘Atticus, you’ve never laid a hand on her.’ ‘I admit that…Jack, she minds me as well as she can.'” (page 88) Instead, he guides them by example. Jem and Scout are able to grudgingly accept the other schoolchildren’s mocking of Atticus. When Cecil Jacobs taunts Scout, she says: “Somehow, if I fought Cecil I would let Atticus down. Atticus so rarely asked Jem and me to do something for him, I could take being called a coward for him.” (page 77) Atticus knows that letting these comments manipulate them means Jem and Scout have stooped to the level of those kids. Atticus shows this when he is not bogged down when Bob Ewell threatens him and spits in his face. Atticus helps Jem and Scout become nobler people and is absolutely fundamental in their formation of morals and values. He understands evil but doesn’t lose his faith in people’s goodness.
The important thing is to appreciate a person’s good qualities but to understand and accept their bad qualities. He tries to teach this moral lesson to them and succeeds. Atticus forces Jem to go read to Mrs. Dubose in order to instill the message. Atticus admires Mrs. Dubose’s courage to live life despite her tremendous pain, while accepting her intense racism. He hopes that Jem can learn something meaningful from his experience with Mrs. Dubose. “‘She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe…son, I told you that if you hadn’t lost your head I’d have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her–I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I knew.'” (page 112)
When Atticus tries to tell Jem that “a man with a gun” is not courageous, he is downplaying the fact that he really isn’t proud of being the sharpest shooter back in the day, that is not something that makes a person virtuous. However, he is actually describing himself in this quote. By taking up Tom’s case, Atticus knows he is licked before he begins, but he sees it through anyways because he knows it is the right thing to do. The trial of Tom Robinson is what affects Jem most. His idealistic notions of life are crushed when innocent Tom is convicted. He has no idea how to comprehend the injustice that he has just witnessed. The strong presence of Atticus in Jem’s life is what will help him see the positive impact of the trial.
At the beginning of Chapter 25, Jem refuses to allow Scout to squash a roly-poly bug because it has done nothing to harm her. “‘Why couldn’t I mash him?’ I asked. ‘Because they don’t bother you,’ Jem answered in the darkness.'” (page 238) After seeing the unjust destruction of Tom, Jem clearly sees the unfairness in destroying the innocent. Jem and Scout become the people they are because of the way their father raises them. He teaches them basically every important moral lesson, preparing them for a successful life. “As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.” (page 279)
The predominant struggle in Bless Me, Ultima is the main character’s search for identity. As Antonio “Tony” Marez comes of age, there is tremendous pressure to live up to the expectations of his parents and of society. However, Tony’s ability to think independently about moral decisions marks his progression from boy to man. Ultima acts as Tony’s guide as he learns the importance of moral independence. Ultima is a curandera, a healer, who comes to live with Tony’s family. She is a respected old woman, wise and all knowing. Much like Atticus, she helps Tony discover his path, but does not choose it for him. “‘Antonio,’ she said calmly and placed her hand on my shoulder, ‘I cannot tell you what to believe…As you grow into manhood you must find your own truths–‘” (page 119) Ultima teaches him that he has to think for himself and arrive at his own conclusions. She is his guardian angel, more a part of his soul than even his parents.
She is undoubtedly his most important family member. The first conflict Tony encounters involves his parents. His mother, a “Luna” wishes him to be a priest, while his father, a free-spirited “Marez” wants him to feel the liberty and peace of a vaquero’s way of life on the llano. “My mother was not a woman of the llano, she was the daughter of a farmer…After I was born in Las Pasturas she persuaded my father to leave the llano and bring her family to the town of Guadalupe where she said there would be opportunity and school for us. The move lowered my father in the esteem of his compadres, the other vaqueros of the llano who clung tenaciously to their way of life and freedom.” (page 2) Tony looks to his family to define his future and identity, but he has no idea which path to follow and whose dreams to accomplish. This is important because it forces Tony to make his own choices, drawing from the experiences of his family, but not to be limited by them.
The other major conflict is between the Catholic and indigenous cultures. “‘You have to choose, Tony’ Cico said, ‘you have to choose between the god of the church, or the beauty that is here and now–‘” (page 237) Tony becomes tremendously frustrated by the failure of the church to answer his questions about evil, forgiveness, truth, sinning, and life. Many events lead to his crisis of faith. The unjust deaths of Lupito, Florence, and Narciso, who were innocent in the way they lived their lives, and the inability of the Catholic priest to destroy witches’ curses on town residents are some of these events. He becomes unsure about the Catholic faith and the nature of God.
Ultima is a member of both the indigenous and Catholic traditions. She understands that life can be viewed in many different perspectives. Although the church doesn’t recognize or condone her mystical powers, she still respects the Catholic faith and goes to mass regularly. Tony is influenced by her to embrace all the cultural influences in his life to become a better person, instead of being restricted to just one culture. Ultima teaches him to make his own moral choices and her guidance leads Tony to resolve his conflicts. Bless Me, Ultima is the story of Tony’s development from childhood to maturity, and he learns from Ultima that only he can determine his future.