Explain how Tom Robinson and Arthur Radley are symbolic mockingbirds using quotations from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus Finch tells Jem that “it is a sin to kill a mockingbird” when his children are given air rifles.   Mockingbirds only provide enjoyment.  Unlike other birds, they do not eat up the gardens or nest in inappropriate places. They sing their “hearts out for people.” In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, one of the major themes is the idea of not killing mockingbirds.

Symbolically, Tom Robinson and Arthur Radley are the mockingbirds in the story.

First, Tom Robinson, a black disabled man, tries to help a young woman who is being abused by her father.  In the time period and locale of the story, the black man was to totally separate himself from the white woman.  It was lucky that Tom had not been hung instead of receiving a trial.  The all-white man jury could not possibly give a black man anything other than a conviction. 

Tom was an innocent man who tried to help another human being and was punished for it.  In the end, it was a sin to kill Tom Robinson who was guilty of nothing.

In the local newspaper, Mr. Underwood labels Tom’s killing senseless.

“Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s heart Atticus had not case.  Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.”

Arthur “Boo” Radley’s life symbolizes the mockingbird.  Boo was harassed by his father and the townspeople his entire life, Boo is also a disabled person.  Lee never specifically lets the reader know what is wrong with Boo; yet, his character is important to the children and the story.  Eventually, the children realize that he has watched them from his house and tried to look out for them.  In the end, he saves both of the children’s lives. 

He chooses to follow them to protect them and in the end has to kill Bob Ewell.  The sheriff protects Boo knowing that he would never survive the attention that he would get if it were known that he had killed Bob Ewell to save the children.

Heck Tate, the sheriff, says: “…taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service and draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight…to me, that’s a sin.  It’s a sin and I’m not about to have it on my head.  Not this man.”

In life, the innocent are often overcome by the deceptively evil. .  By using a black man and a white man to represent the mockingbirds, Lee goes beyond the stereotypical and shows that prejudice and hurt go far beyond color and race.  Anyone can be bullied or treated badly.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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