What is the symbolism of the dog in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The mad dog in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is symbolic of a few things.  First, the mad dog represents the "madness" that Atticus has to face now that he has taken on Tom Robinson's case.  The community has rallied against Atticus because they believe that Robinson is guilty simply because he is black.  Throughout the book, the Finch family has to buffer themselves against this racism (i.e. fighting off the mob).  So the mad dog represents the community's madness that is based on racism.  Further, the mad dog (and the scene surrounding him) is symbolic of Atticus's strength and resolve and his desire to protect his family.  When the mad dog threatens his family, he immediately grabs a rifle and shoots the dog.  The children are surprised by this because normally Atticus is very calm and laid back.  However, he is a good shot, and the dog dies quickly.  This scene shows that Atticus will do anything to protect his family from the madness around them.

mike-krupp eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus has to be persuaded to meet the dog.  He sees that the dog is clearly a danger to his family and the public, and further appears to be in great misery.  The important point is that Atticus is reluctant (a) to hurt the dog; (b) to demonstrate his marksmanship; and, I suspect, (c) to appear as a public hero.  Before shooting the dog he takes off his glasses; afterward, he grinds them underfoot.  I see two messages here: first, Atticus is ashamed to hide behind his glasses; second, he is distressed about having to fire a weapon close to home and having to appear as a hero.  Atticus is aware that he really is a warrior hero and is conflicted in that he is ashamed of his heroism.  His confidence and his willingness to go into danger are part of his motivation for defending Tom Robinson against a public opinion that is repugnant to him.

engtchr5 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The afflicted dog in To Kill A Mockingbird is a representation of larger and more abstract approaching danger. The dog starts at the end of the Finch's long street, and twists, writhes, and seizes his way toward them, frothing at the mouth all the while. Calpurnia alerts Atticus to the danger, and in turn, he shows up to remedy the situation, though not without some prodding from Sheriff Heck Tate. Atticus is indeed the best shot in town, according to the sheriff, but he has had no reason to use his gifts of marksmanship in recent years. When the dangerous dog (and the danger of the situation in Maycomb) get too close for comfort, Atticus dispatches the dog in a single shot, a representation of his expedient and efficient handling of the larger "dangers" that confront his family in the story.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with the others.  I put Ol' Tim Johnson in the category of a foreshadowing, as well.  Here he is, just livin' his happy dog life when he's struck with hydrophobia.  However he got it, it's nothing he did deliberately, and it's not really his fault.  What happens after he gets it isn't particularly his fault, either.  That makes him kind of a mockingbird, symbolically.  Atticus has no choice--the dog is mad and must be killed, foreshadowing the death of another mockingbird symbol, Tom. 

lmmayo1 | Student

I agree that the dog represents the madness of Maycomb surrounding the Finch family. I also think the subject of Atticus' secret of his shooting skill is important. This is when Jem and Scout truly separate. When Scout wants to brag to everyone at school about her father's skill, Jem feels it's not important for everyone to know. This is such an important lesson for Jem and Scout. My students love class discussion about why Atticus has kept this a secret. It also ties in with the guns for Christmas gifts and that he wants Uncle Jack to teach them how to shoot. His lesson is that being able to shoot a gun does not make him a man. How he lives is his life does.

zumba96 | Student

No one knows Atticus is so skilled at a gun but he does not want to be seen as a hero after hurting the dog. While the dog poses a danger to society, this could be expanded to the white folk and racism. The dog poses a danger to society while the racist white folk pose a danger to society because they will corrupt the thinking of others. 

isabellabella3 | Student

Atticus Finch was the only person that could kill the dog - the disease of racsim.

rajashreeanand | Student

A mad dog can be an extremely harmful creature because it has simply lost control of its senses and actions. Its portentous nature forces society to eliminate it.

Using this imagery, Harper Lee forecasts the struggle that is about to unfold in the narrative of the story. The madness that is well spread across society is clearly apartheid. It must be controlled or it will lead to complete destruction of hope for the innocent blacks.

There is no room for such dangers and destructive forces in society.  The one to exterminate this fear is Atticus . The act of shooting the mad dog proves that it is Atticus who will take that step to ensure that justice will ensue. He has complete control of the situation and with a precise bullet shot he vanquishes any fear lurking in the city. This is later clarified in his powerful arguments against injustice in the court.


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To Kill a Mockingbird

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