What was the very important advice Atticus gave the children along with the air rifles in To Kill a Mockigbird?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In chapter 9, Uncle Jack gives Jem and Scout air rifles as Christmas gifts. In chapter 10, the children go outside to shoot their air rifles, and Atticus tells them that he'd rather them shoot at tin cans. Atticus then tells Jem and Scout,

"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." (Lee, 93)

Miss Maudie then elaborates on Atticus's reasoning by explaining to the children that mockingbirds are innocent, defenseless creatures that do not harm anyone and simply bring joy to the world, which is why it is considered a sin to kill them.

Throughout the novel, mockingbirds are symbolic of any innocent, defenseless being. Atticus's lesson concerning mockingbirds metaphorically applies to the importance of protecting innocent, vulnerable beings. Both Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are considered symbolic mockingbirds throughout the novel. Atticus valiantly defends Tom in front of a prejudiced jury, and Heck Tate protects Boo Radley by refusing to inform the community about his heroics. Scout metaphorically applies Atticus's lesson when she tells him that she understands Heck Tate's reasoning. Scout tells Atticus,

"Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?" (280)

Similar to how mockingbirds are in danger of children wielding air rifles, Boo Radley would be harmed if he was cast into the community's limelight because of his extremely shy personality.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus gave his children air rifles for Christmas, but he told them never to point them at anyone and to never shoot a mockingbird.

Atticus does not like guns much.  He is a crack shot, but when he kills the rabid dog he says he hasn’t shot a gun in 30 years.  He does not want to give his children rifles and tells them that if they make “one false move he'd take them away from us for good” (ch 9).  Atticus has only given in, buying them guns.

Atticus tells Jem that he can shoot at all the bluejays he wants, but “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird" (ch 10).  Scout comments that her father has never said anything else was a sin before, so she asks Miss Maudie what he meant.

 "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” (ch 10)

Atticus has taught his children a valuable lesson.  You don’t target creatures that aren’t doing any harm.  In the book, this is significant because there are several symbolic mockingbirds. Boo Radley is one of the mockingbirds, because he is a victim of society but never has hurt anyone.  The other mockingbird is Tom Robinson, who is also victimized by society in a different way.  Boo is the victim of society’s expectations, and Tom is the victim of society’s prejudices.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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