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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Student Question

How does the title To Kill a Mockingbird relate to the book's themes of judgment, morality, love, understanding, and sin?

Expert Answers

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A few additional comments on the title and meaning:  Lee uses the mockingbird as a symbol of innocence, joy, and freedom, borrowing from other American writers, such as Walt Whitman in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” who use the bird in this way. Although it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, Atticus says it’s permissible to shoot blue jays, thus making blue jays the opposite of mockingbirds.  Loud, territorial, and very aggressive, blue jays can be understood as the bullies of the bird world.  The finch, the family name of Atticus, means a songbird like the mockingbird, and he pits himself against the evil in the town.

As bullies, however, blue jays embody the meanness of racism and people such as Bob Ewell (his last name sounds similar to “evil”) . While Atticus is  uncomfortable with covering the fact that Boo killed Ewell in defending his children against Ewell’s attack, he is  willing to overlook the details of the law to protect the mockingbird that is Boo and dismiss the dead blue jay that is Ewell.  Atticus also “attacks” blue jays when he shoots the mad dog.  The dog represents prejudice, and how, like a rabid dog, it spread its disease throughout the South.  In shooting the dog Atticus kills a blue jay, and in so doing also kills racism and prejudice, trying to prevent it from spreading any further.

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The novel's title is from chapter 10: Atticus tells the kids that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because they don't harm anyone. This statement begins the idea of “mockingbirds” as goodness and innocence destroyed by evil. One can compare the mockingbird to Boo Radley, who also harms no one, yet is ruined by others, most specifically his father.

The connection between songbirds and goodness continues throughout the book. In Chapter 25, Mr. Underwood compares Tom's death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children”; in Chapter 30, Scout realizes the connection and tells Atticus that hurting Boo Radley would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.”

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In Chapter 10, the theme of it's a sin to kill a mockingbird begins to emerge. The children have received air rifles, and Atticus is cautioning them to never kill a mockingbird. When Scout asks Miss Maudie about it, Miss Maudie explains to her why it is a sin. The mockingbird provides us with a beautiful song and does no harm to anyone, so it would be a sin to kill it. This scene sets the stage for Boo Radley and Tom Robinson to emerge as the "mockingbirds" in the novel. How people treat Boo and what happens to Tom is a sin in the eyes of Atticus. They are both innocent human beings who never hurt anyone.

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