In chapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird, what is the symbolic meaning of the mockingbird?

Mockingbirds symbolically represent innocent, benevolent beings who are vulnerable and defenseless. Since mockingbirds are harmless, pleasant birds, Atticus considers it a sin to kill one. A symbolic mockingbird like Tom Robinson is a generous, friendly man who relies on Atticus to protect him from Maycomb's dangerous racial prejudice. Arthur "Boo" Radley is another symbolic mockingbird who needs Sheriff Tate to protect him from the community's limelight.

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As the title of the novel indicates, mockingbirds are an important symbol in the book, but they aren't mentioned until chapter 10. Here, Atticus wants Jem and Scout to be careful about shooting their air rifles, telling them it would be a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Scout goes to Miss Maudie to inquire about why it would be sin. Miss Maudie tells her it is because the birds sing a beautiful song and harm no one.

This speaks to a major theme of the novel: the harm society does to the innocent. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are the two innocents in the novel. Both suffer as a result of prejudice, though they harm no one and try to do good to others. Tom is condemned to death despite being innocent of raping Mayella Ewell: his crime is being African American in a society where the word of a white is always believed over the word of any African American. Boo is the victim of prejudice in Maycomb because he is reclusive. This makes it easy for the townspeople to spread exaggerated stories about him as a bogeyman and blame him for all that goes wrong.

Scout is young and naive enough to believe the stories, despite all the evidence before her of Boo's kindness. She begins to mature at the end of the novel as she comes to see the worth in this "mockingbird."

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At the beginning of chapter 10, Jem and Scout are shooting their air rifles outside, and Atticus tells the children that he would prefer if they shot at tin cans in the back yard. 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)
Scout is surprised by Atticus's comment about shooting at mockingbirds and says it was the first time she heard him consider anything a sin. Miss Maudie elaborates on Atticus's statement by saying,
"Your father’s right...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." (Lee, 93)

According to Atticus and Miss Maudie, it is considered a sin to kill a mockingbird because they are friendly, benevolent birds and cause nobody harm.

Throughout the novel, mockingbirds symbolize any innocent, compassionate being who is vulnerable and cannot defend themselves against others. Tom Robinson and Arthur "Boo" Radley are two prime examples of symbolic mockingbirds in the story. Both Tom and Boo are innocent, generous individuals who are defenseless against their community's prejudice. Tom Robinson relies on Atticus's help to defend him against a racist jury and Boo Radley relies on Sheriff Tate to protect him from the community's limelight. Essentially, Atticus's comment about it being a sin to kill a mockingbird is a metaphorical lesson on the importance of protecting innocent, vulnerable beings. By the end of the story, Scout metaphorically applies her father's lesson regarding Boo Radley's unique situation by telling him,

"Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it." (Lee, 280)
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In Chapter 10, Atticus tells Scout and Jem that he'd rather they shoot tin cans than birds with their air-rifles, but if they are going to shoot birds, to shoot bluejays instead of mockingbirds. When Scout asks Miss Maudie about what Atticus has said, Miss Maudie explains that mockingbirds don't do anything but sing. They make no mischief, such as eating people's gardens or nesting in corncribs, so it's a sin to kill them because all they do is make music for people to enjoy. 

The mockingbird symbolizes pure innocence. It stands for characters in the novel such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley who are entirely innocent and who do not hurt anyone. However, Tom and Boo are vilified because they are different than those who hold power in Maycomb--Tom because he is black and Boo because he is a social outsider. For that reason, these innocent people are victimized as if they were innocent mockingbirds that were shot while singing in a tree. 

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Atticus tells the children it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because "they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." Mockingbirds are not harmful so it would be wrong to hurt them. The mockingbird is symbolic of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Both characters never harm anyone. In fact, they both keep to themselves, only interacting with others in the form of help. Tom helps Mayella. Boo helps the children most significantly when he saves them from Mr. Ewell. The mockingbird, and these two characters, symbolize innocence and generosity. It is prejudice that clouds many of the Maycomb residents' judgment. They can't see that Tom and Boo are mockingbirds in this symbolic sense because their preconceived notions about the two of them are founded on racism and gossip. It is fitting at the end of the novel when Atticus agrees with Scout that most people are nice "when you finally see them." 

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