Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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How does Jem Finch symbolize a mockingbird in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird?

Jem Finch symbolizes a mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird in that he's an innocent soul who (usually) does no harm. Jem's innocence can be seen by his belief that Maycomb people are the best in the world, a belief that is destroyed by the wrongful conviction of Tom Robinson.

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When teaching his children about guns, Atticus tells them that they can shoot at tin cans and blue jays but that they should never shoot at a mockingbird. He even goes so far as to call this action sinful, which shocks Scout, as her father has never classified actions in that way. She asks her trusted neighbor, Miss Maudie, what Atticus meant by this comment. Miss Maudie tells her that mockingbirds only exist to create beautiful music; they never cause anyone any harm.

Those who read this novel often analyze who or what is the symbolic mockingbird of the novel's title. Some believe that Jem is the mockingbird because of the conflict he faces, particularly during Tom Robinson's trial. Jem is a fairly ideal young man. Early in the novel, he finds Scout holding Walter Cunningham's face in the dirt and invites the young boy to their home for some food; this proves that he has a heart for helping others.

Yet early in the novel, Jem is quite young and hasn't fully matured into this mindset. Recall that he spent his summers enacting "Boo Radley" skits and engaging in "daring" feats to touch the man's house. Later, he destroys Miss Dubose's prized flowers. These actions don't quite fit the description provided by Miss Maudie.

The Tom Robinson trial is a turning point for Jem. Because of the outcome, Jem begins to look at the world differently and understands that not everyone is given a fair chance to live his best life. While he and Scout sit in a place of privilege, Tom dies because of the prejudices of his Maycomb neighbors. This greatly bothers Jem, who then extends a newfound need to help the less fortunate to a roly-poly bug he finds.

Although Jem demonstrates the capacity for goodness from the beginning of the novel, the conflict he faces further grows him into a young man who will likely protect the innocent and will make the world a more beautiful place through his newfound voice. This demonstrates that Jem is growing into a faithful mockingbird.

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In the story, mockingbirds symbolically represent innocent, compassionate beings who are vulnerable and in need of protection from others. Atticus teaches his children the importance of protecting innocent, defenseless beings by instructing them not to kill mockingbirds and representing Tom Robinson in court. Although Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are the most notable symbolic mockingbirds, Jem Finch shares many similar traits with them and also fits the description of a mockingbird. Jem is depicted as a pure, innocent child who goes out of his way to support Scout but has a naïve outlook on Maycomb's prejudiced community.

According to Miss Maudie, mockingbirds cause no one harm and simply make beautiful music for people to enjoy. Similar to a mockingbird, Jem demonstrates his generous nature by offering Scout encouraging words when she feels upset, sharing some of his birthday money with her to purchase a baton, and comforting Scout following the Maycomb Halloween festival. There are many other examples of Jem displaying his benevolence, like his courageous decision not to abandon Atticus in front of the mob.

In addition to his selfless, altruistic personality, Jem is also innocent and does recognize the true nature of his racist town. Growing up in Maycomb, Jem is blind to the reality of his prejudiced community, which is segregated by racial laws and customs. During the Tom Robinson trial, Jem naively believes Atticus has won the case because he made a valid argument for Tom's innocence. However, Jem is heartbroken and loses his childhood innocence when Tom receives a guilty verdict.

Following the traumatic experience, Jem describes his feelings to Miss Maudie by saying,

It's like bein' a caterpillar in a cocoon, that's what it is ... Like somethin' asleep wrapped up in a warm place. I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that's what they seemed like.

His comments and feelings regarding Tom's wrongful conviction highlight his vulnerable nature. Overall, Jem is considered a symbolic mockingbird because of his innocence, altruistic personality, and vulnerability.

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Jem Finch, like his sister Scout, is undoubtedly one of life's mockingbirds as defined by Miss Maudie. Like a mockingbird, Jem is good and completely innocent; he never (or perhaps rarely) does anyone any harm. In this sense, he's like most children. And one could argue that it's this innocent quality of his to which Boo Radley responds when he saves Jem and Scout from the evil clutches of Bob Ewell near the end of the story.

Jem is also innocent in that he assumes that the people of Maycomb are the best in the world. But that assumption is completely shattered after the wrongful conviction of Tom Robinson for the rape and assault of Mayella Ewell.

In his innocence, Jem thought that the jury would look at the evidence and see that Tom was completely innocent of any crime. But because of their deeply ingrained racial prejudice, they'd already made their minds up that he was guilty before they'd even set foot in the courtroom.

Jem is truly heartbroken by the patently unjust verdict. As his father said, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, and the jury has committed a sin by wrongfully convicting an innocent man, Tom Robinson, and robbing a child, Jem Finch, of his innocence.

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It is first important to define what a mockingbird is. This comes out clearly in a conversation between Atticus and his children. Atticus says that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. The children are shocked to hear Atticus's strong words. So, they ask Miss Maudie. Miss Maudie responds with these words:

“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.”

Based on this definition, a mockingbird is someone who always does good. So, if someone tried to hurt a mockingbird, then it would be a grave sin. 

Jem, along with all the children, are mockingbirds. They are not only innocent, but they have good hearts. They want to do good. For example, Jem invites Walter Cunningham for a meal, when he and Scout were fighting. Jem also reads to Mrs. Dubose in her illness. Atticus also says that if the jury were comprised of boys like Jem, Tom Robinson would be free. Finally, at the end of the book, Jem seeks to save Scout from Bob Ewell's mad attack. 



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