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

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator


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.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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).

mattyc1996 | Student

Harper Lee uses the symbolism of a mockingbird in several places. A mockingbird as discribed by Maudie is;

"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."

Throughout the novel there are 4 main 'mockingbirds'

1- Tom Robinson - He did no harm to anyone (he actually helped Mayella) but was literally killed by the community

2- Boo Radley - Boo never harmed anyone but was victimized by the social prejudice of the community.

3- Atticus - Along with Tom, Atticus is probably the main mockingbird in the novel. Atticus always treated people fairly and was a role model to not only his children but the whole community,yet he has ridiculed for taking on the case of Tom Robinson simply because Tom was a black man and they felt it was wrong that a white man should try and defend him.

4- 2 minor symbolic mockingbirds - not characters

  • Justice - Justice is meant to serve people fairly and not do harm yet it did not produce a just result
  • Childhood Innocence -
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To Kill a Mockingbird

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