In both the 1960 novel [by Harper Lee] and the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson becomes the essential “mockingbird” of the title, the mockingbird being a common and harmless creature which adds beauty to its environment and which is not considered a food source as are many other birds. A literal mockingbird contributes beauty to all who hear its music, embellishing the Southern summer days with sweet and varied songs; Tom Robinson, a poor black field hand, contributes a different sort of beauty through his kindness to, and pity for, the lonely and abused white woman who later falsely accuses him of rape. According to Lee’s ethical framework, killing an innocent mockingbird constitutes a severe moral lapse, as there can be no valid reason for doing so, whether that “mockingbird” is a literal bird or someone symbolized by the bird. When that killing targets a human rather than a bird, of course, the murder moves beyond ethics and into civil law and the concept of community.
Without the innocent Tom Robinson and the accumulated lies, fed by racial hatred, which lead to his murder, the theme of racism would be almost totally absent from the novel. Scattered racist remarks, without Robinson as their specific topic, would not sufficiently illustrate the power of ignorant hatred; they would not demonstrate the horrors which unthinking, unreasoning racism can inflict upon both victims and participants. Robinson’s race and the white town’s bigotry set the stage for nearly every other theme explored by Lee: alienation, the loss of innocence, the effects of poverty, the power of hatred, fear of the unknown, and the redemptive power of love and friendship. Without Robinson, even the title of the novel loses its significance and symbolic value; without Robinson, there is no story.