What is the significance of the seventeen bullet holes in Tom Robinson, and what does the phrase "seventeen bullets" mean in To Kill a Mockingbird?
I don't believe there is anything symbolic about the number 17 concerning the bullet holes that Tom Robinson received during his escape attempt in To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead, the number seems to reflect the excessive measures taken by the prison guards who shot Tom. Although they supposedly fired warning shots as Tom tried to make his escape, the guards certainly used excessive force once Tom had made it to the fence. Where several bullets would have probably been sufficient to stop his escape or even kill Tom, the guards took no chances: They riddled his body with seventeen bullets (and there may have been even more shots taken that missed their mark). This is why Atticus commented that
"They didn't have to shoot him that much."
The number seventeen itself does not hold any symbolic value; however, it is obvious from the number of shots that excessive force was used, hence the remark by Atticus that the guards did not need to shoot him that much.
Through the number of shots, Lee seems to have been making a point that Tom Robinson was treated unfairly even in death. For example, would any escaping inmate be shot seventeen times? Is it necessary to shoot someone seventeen times to immobilize them? Certainly fewer shots could have been taken to slow him down and then catch him, but clearly that was not the guards' purpose. Seventeen shots means they wanted to kill Tom Robinson rather than wound him and put him back in jail, which would have been a perfectly acceptable way to stop a prison break.