Explain the meaning of the mockingbird references in To Kill a Mockingbird.

References to the mockingbird are found primarily in the advice that Atticus Finch gives his children, which is echoed by their neighbor Miss Maudie. Atticus tells Jem and Scout that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” and Miss Maudie explains that this is because the bird harms no one and simply sings lovely songs. Specific characters to whom this reference applies include Boo Radley and Tom Robinson.

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The title of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird refers to a saying that Atticus Finch passes on to his children, Scout and Jem. In chapter 10, after the children witness him kill a rabid dog with one shot, they discuss the ethics of shooting animals. He advises them that it would be acceptable to shoot a blue jay, but “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” As Atticus otherwise does not speak about sin, Scout is confused. She consults their neighbor Miss Maudie. This kindly older woman confirms Atticus’s advice:

“Your father’s right,” she said. “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. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The idea that killing any creature, human or otherwise, if that being only brings enjoyment is a key theme of the novel.

Two of the characters to whom this advice applies are Arthur “Boo” Radley and Tom Robinson. Atticus is concerned that his children are harassing Boo because their overactive imaginations consider him some kind of monster. Atticus emphasizes his humanity and encourages the children to have compassion. Boo is ultimately shown to be a lookout and protector of the children. Scout demonstrates her understanding of the mockingbird metaphor (chapter 30). Given Boo’s intense introversion, she offers that publicizing his actions would be like killing a mockingbird.

In regard to Tom Robinson, a “songbird” comparison is used by Braxton Underwood in a newspaper editorial after Tom is killed. This usage indicates that Underwood believed in Tom’s innocence, despite his conviction.

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When Atticus states that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, instructing Jem and Scout never to shoot at them with their new air rifles, Scout wonders why this is so. She asks her neighbor Miss Maudie why killing this bird is a sin. Miss Maudie replies that this is because mockingbirds don't do any harm. They simply sing songs that people enjoy hearing.

The novel is called To Kill a Mockingbird because the mockingbird is a symbol of Tom Robinson. Robinson does no harm to anyone. In fact, he is helpful to Mayella Ewell, who he feels sorry for as a lonely young woman. He is also known in the Black community as an upstanding family man. Nevertheless, he is accused and put on trial for raping Mayella.

Atticus is able to prove the accusation is false and that Robinson is innocent. Nevertheless, Robinson is convicted of the crime because he is Black, and the Jim Crow code in the South says that the word of a white woman is always believed over the word of a Black man. Robinson is later killed. It was as much a sin to have killed this innocent man who did no harm as it is to kill a mockingbird.

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When Scout and Jem get air rifles for Christmas, Atticus tells them, “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Scout does not understand what her father means, and this is first time he has ever spoken of anything as being sinful. She decides to ask Miss Maudie, and Miss Maudie explains, “Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.” They never cause any harm; they just “sing their hearts out for us.” Something that is so beautiful and so generous and so peaceful should not be harmed.

The mockingbird is mentioned one more time, much later in the novel. Scout and Jem have been attacked by Bob Ewell, and Boo Radley comes to their aid, killing Ewell in the process. At first, Atticus thinks that Jem might be responsible for Ewell's death, but when Mr. Tate finally makes Atticus understand what really happened, Atticus agrees to let Mr. Tate's explanation stand. Ewell fell on his knife. Period. Mr. Tate is completely unwilling to put Boo Radley into the limelight. If the town were to realize that he is the one who saved Scout and Jem, they would make a fuss over him, wanting to do all kinds of favors for him, thinking they are doing him a service. The reality would be the opposite. Boo Radley would be overwhelmed with “kindness” and miserable.

After Mr. Tate leaves, Atticus asks Scout if she understands about Ewell falling on his knife. She tells him that she does and that Mr. Tate is right. Then she adds, “Well, it'd be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?” In her childhood innocence, Scout understands that Boo Radley is like a mockingbird. He causes no harm; he merely wants to brighten the world in the limited ways in which he knows how. He is, beneath his reclusive exterior, beautiful and generous and peaceful, so he should not be harmed.

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