Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Start Free Trial

In To Kill a Mockingbird, what motif is reinforced when Jem stops Scout from killing a roly-poly?

Quick answer:

The incident with the roly-poly echoes the mockingbird motif. Just as Jem says not to kill the bug because it does not bother Scout, the children have been told it is sinful to kill a mockingbird because all they do is make nice music. This, in turn, is echoed by the violent death of Tom Robinson, who never meant anyone any harm.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem stops Scout from killing a roly-poly because it never did anything to bother her. This reinforces the motif that it is wrong to harm something or someone that is gentle and harmless. This motif is also reflected in the title and repeated in the text when Atticus says that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. Miss Maudie agrees, telling the children that mockingbirds are gentle and do nothing but bring joy to people with their singing.

This motif is stated in terms of the mockingbird and the roly-poly, and is a metaphor for gentle people. Throughout the book, there are examples of the gentle, harmless person who is vulnerable to the dangers of the world. One key example is Boo Radley, who fascinates and frightens the children. Yet, he is a gentle soul who never harms anyone. The children do not realize this at first, but they learn of his true nature by the end of the book.

Atticus tells the children that you never really know a man until you walk around in his shoes. He is trying to teach them to have compassion for people and also to leave Boo alone. It is clear that Boo is gentle. He fears the world, probably because of the ill treatment that he has received at the hands of his father and brother. In fact, when his father dies, Calpurnia says,

There goes the meanest man ever God blew breath into.

Atticus wants the children to leave Boo alone but the fascination he holds for them makes this difficult. Yet, at the end of the book when Boo saves them, Scout recognizes how timid and fearful he is and understands why Atticus has said that it a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A repeated motif in To Kill a Mockingbird centers around not harming that which does not harm you. This refers to the mockingbird itself. When Scout and Jem are given BB-guns for Christmas, Atticus admonishes them not to shoot mockingbirds. He says it would be a sin to kill something that only makes sweet music and poses no danger to anyone. Tom Robinson is a symbolic mockingbird in this sense. Tom Robinson is objectively a good and compassionate man; however, he is falsely accused of a crime and killed for it because of his race. Just as Atticus says it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, it was a sin to kill Tom Robinson.

Jem takes this message to heart. At the start of chapter 25, Jem stops Scout from killing a roly-poly bug. When Scout asks why Jem tells her that it is just a defenseless creature that means nobody any harm. He tells her that she should put it out on the back steps instead. This occurs shortly after they have learned that Tom Robinson has been killed. This news has deeply affected the whole Finch family, particularly Jem. He strongly feels the morality in the lesson about it being sinful to kill any harmless creature. Scout thinks that this is just a strange stage that Jem is going through. She is actually annoyed at him for this. However, this shows that Jem has matured throughout the whole experience.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At the beginning of chapter 25, Scout is playing with a harmless roly poly bug and is about to smash it when Jem speaks up. Jem demonstrates his growth and maturity by preventing Scout from senselessly killing the roly poly. When Scout asks why she couldn't smash it, Jem responds by saying, "Because they don’t bother you" (Lee, 242).

The roly poly bug underscores the significant mockingbird motif in the novel. Both the roly poly bug and mockingbirds are defenseless beings that do not cause anyone harm. These vulnerable beings rely on others for protection in the same way Tom Robinson relies on Atticus to protect him from Maycomb's racist community members. This scene also emphasizes the theme regarding the importance of protecting vulnerable, innocent beings. After witnessing racial injustice firsthand, Jem experiences a dramatic transformation and becomes more tolerant and sympathetic. The fact that Jem prevents Scout from senselessly killing a harmless roly poly reveals that he is following in his father's footsteps and understands the importance of protecting innocent, defenseless beings.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This scene takes place in chapter 25 when Jem and Scout are sleeping on the back porch in the summer heat.  At this point in the novel, the trial has come and gone, Tom Robinson has been shot, Scout has had tea with the Missionary Society, and neither of the children are particularly interested in Boo Radley anymore.

In short, Scout and Jem have grown up a lot.  When Jem stops Scout from killing the bug, then, it seems a little ironic.  Normally adults kill bugs in the house and it is children who wish to save them.  In this case, however, Jem's actions reference the "Mockingbird" motif.  It started with Atticus' lesson with Scout on the first day of school, the idea of "walking around" in someone else's skin.  Later, with his first BB gun, Jem learned he was allowed to shoot all the jays he could, but not to shoot mockingbirds because all they do is sing.  Jem applied this lesson directly to Tom Robinson's guilty verdict and was never the same.

At this point in the novel, he has become a more introverted and thoughtful character.  To stop Scout from killing a bug shows his struggle with circumstances he could not prevent and now that he cannot change.  It is almost as if he is thinking, "Tom Robinson died innocently.  The least I can do is save this bug from the same fate."  This scene shows Jem's internal conflict, his anger, and his feeling of helplessness to bring about change.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jem's defense of the harmless roly poly illustrates the theme of pacification that Atticus exhibits throughout the novel. Atticus always turns the other cheek, preferring to fight his battles through reason and always without physical aggression. He gives up the rifle because his one good eye still leaves him with "an unfair advantage over most living things." He refuses to fight Bob Ewell after having been spat upon. He directs Scout to stop fighting with her fists and, instead, learn to control her temper without violence. Atticus and his children hold off the lynch mob without a punch being thrown. Jem has learned his lessons from both Atticus and the trial of Tom Robinson, where one of the novel's human mockingbirds is dealt both injustice and a bloody death. Jem is devastated by the biased jury verdict and its cruel aftermath: Tom cannot be helped, but Jem can stop Scout from needlessly taking the life of another innocent creature.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This relates to the themes of justice, kindness and mercy which are prominent throughout the book. Scout is about to kill the bug just because, being a young child, she is rather thoughtless, and simply because she has the power to do so. Jem, being older, is able to see that this is a thoughtless act of cruelty and there is no need for it, that people must learn to be kind and considerate towards all living things, particularly those that are smaller and weaker. The book shows however, that a lot of human beings don't subscribe to this notion; the lack of mercy shown to Tom Robinson is the most powerful illustration of this.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial