Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird features a motif and symbol of a mockingbird. The mockingbird, or songbird, is used to represent innocence and purity.
The symbol is introduced when Jem and Scout get air rifles. Atticus’s only warning is to “remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (chapter 10). Scout is confused by why this matters so much to Atticus, so she asks Miss Maudie. Miss Maudie tells her,
“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” (chapter 10).
This introduction to the mockingbird establishes its symbolism and purpose in the text. The mockingbird will be referenced any time someone innocent dies. This is especially true if the killing is only done to appease society, which does not appreciate beauty, innocence, and virtue.
Tom Robinson, a black man, is wrongly convicted of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. When he tries to escape jail, he is shot numerous times by the guards. In reaction to this, Mr. Underwood, the owner, editor, and writer of the Maycomb Tribune, writes an editorial. Scout notes that, “he likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children...” (chapter 25). Now, the mockingbird is being equated with a man that was wrongly convicted of a crime by a racist jury. He was innocent in the whole affair, but a white man, Bob Ewell, needed a scapegoat for his crime, so he chose someone he knew would be blamed.
Finally, towards the end of the novel, Boo Radley saves Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell, who attacks them. Even though Boo Radley killed Bob to save the children, he would still have been blamed for the death. Mr. Tate, the sheriff, spins the story to save Boo from harm. When he and Atticus explain this to Scout and ask her if she understands, she replies, “Well it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (chapter 30). This final reference to the motif and symbol used throughout the book cements its meaning. Within this text, the mockingbird is seen as a symbol of those who value beauty and innocence over a corrupt society.