In To Kill a Mockingbird, how does Harper Lee use the symbol of the mockingbird in the novel?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee uses the symbol of the mockingbird to stand for people who do not harm anyone, and even bring them joy, and in turn should be shielded from harm. Throughout the novel, Lee stresses that the immorality of killing mockingbirds is a cornerstone of the philosophy that Atticus Finch teaches his children.

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The mockingbird is a central symbol in the novel. The author uses it to represent a type of person who does not cause harm to others and often makes them happy; for that reason they are deserving of other people’s protection. The idea of “killing” a mockingbird about which Atticus...

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The mockingbird is a central symbol in the novel. The author uses it to represent a type of person who does not cause harm to others and often makes them happy; for that reason they are deserving of other people’s protection. The idea of “killing” a mockingbird about which Atticus Finch frequently speaks is extended into causing any sort of harm to a harmless or an innocent person. Scout grows accustomed to her father’s frequent reminders of the need to be kind and compassionate, which he phrases in turns of sin. However, it is only after the prison guards kill Tom Robinson and she reads B.B. Underwood’s newspaper editorial about “songbirds” that she makes the connection on her own.

The most prominent mockingbird figures are Tom Robinson, who is wrongly convicted of rape and then killed, and Arthur “Boo” Radley, who stays in his house and harms no one. Not only was Tom falsely accused, he was also trying to be helpful. Despite his innocence, he is tried and convicted based on suspect testimony, and then killed in prison. It is a published reference to the killing that stimulates Scout to understand what her father had always told them. In this case, Robinson is considered a mockingbird because of the physical disability of his injured arm.

A sharp contrast is drawn between Arthur’s actual behavior and what is attributed to him in the rumors that circulate through Maycomb. The gifts he leaves the Finch children show his kindness. Even though it appears that Arthur killed Bob Ewell, he is never charged because he did so to save the Finch children. Scout can see that subjecting him to public scrutiny would be comparable to shooting the bird.

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Throughout the novel, mockingbirds symbolically represent innocent, defenseless beings, who bring peace and joy to the world. In chapter 10, Atticus explains to his children that it is considered a sin to kill a mockingbird. Miss Maudie elaborates on Atticus's statement by mentioning that mockingbirds do nothing to harm or annoy humans and simply make beautiful music for everyone to enjoy. Later on in the novel, Tom Robinson is wrongly convicted and shot while attempting to escape from Enfield Prison Farm. In chapter 25, Scout recalls reading Mr. Underwood's editorial where he compares Tom's death to the "senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children." Essentially, Tom is a symbolic mockingbird because he exemplifies similar traits. Tom is innocent, compassionate, and defenseless. Tom also relies on Atticus's protection, but unfortunately becomes a victim of racial injustice.

Following Bob Ewell's attack, Scout discovers that Boo Radley saved her life. When Atticus is having a discussion with Sheriff Tate concerning their decision to disclose Boo's heroics to the community, Scout metaphorically applies Atticus's earlier lesson about killing mockingbirds. Scout says to her father,

"Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?" (Lee, 281).

Scout understands that Boo is an innocent, vulnerable person and describes him as a symbolic mockingbird. Casting Boo into the community's limelight would be the same thing as killing a defenseless mockingbird. Atticus's message can be metaphorically interpreted to mean that citizens have an obligation to protect innocent, defenseless individuals.

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As author Harper Lee explains through her characters Atticus and Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird, the mockingbird is a symbol of purity and innocence. According to Maudie,

"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 innocence of the mockingbird is symbolized in human terms, especially in many of the children in the novel. Jem and Scout are two human mockingbirds, and their loss of innocence is another important theme of the novel. Lee has even given them the symbolic name of Finch--another type of innocent songbird. There are also adult mockingbirds--particularly the unjustly accused innocents Tom Robinson and Boo Radley.

The song of the mockingbird is not heard during several serious scenes, including the killing of the mad dog (Chapter 10) and during the sentencing of Robinson (Chapter 21). B. B. Underwood references "the senseless slaughter of songbirds" in his editorial concerning Tom's death (Chapter 25), and Scout later understands that subjecting Boo to an investigation into Bob Ewell's death would be "sort of like shootin' a mockingbird" (Chapter 30).

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The mockingbird is a songbird that sings beautiful songs, and Harper Lee uses it as a symbol of both Tom Robinson, and to a smaller degree, Boo Radley.  No, Tom and Boo don't go around singing beautiful songs in the trees.  :)  The mockingbird is a symbol of innocence, and Scout mentions how after she and Jem got air-rifles, Atticus warned them not to shoot the mockingbirds, because "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird," meaning, a bird who is just innocently singing its song should not be shot or harmed.  It is innocent, harmless, and just going about its business, and to harm a helpless and innocent creature is a sin.  Later, B. B. Underwood makes a direct comparison between Tom and a mockingbird.  He

"likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children,"

meaning, shooting Tom, because of its senseless waste and cruelty, was like shooting an innocent songbird.

Tom represents a mockingbird because he was an innocent man who was unjustly condemned to jail and then killed,  just for show and man's senseless pride.  Boo represents a mockingbird because he is more or less just a man living his life, who is put on display for people's curiosity and fascination, just like a prize bird would be displayed.  The mockingbird works well to symbolize the senseless harm that some cause in the lives of others.  I hope that those thoughts help some; good luck!

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