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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." What does this quote mean in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee?

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While To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is not a particularly symbolic novel, the mockingbird is an inescapable symbol which both Miss Maudie and Atticus try to help Scout understand. After Atticus makes his statement about killing bluejays (or other birds) but never killing mockingbirds, Scout feels the need to question her father's edict, mostly because it is so unusual. She asks Miss Maudie about Atticus's perplexing statement, and she gets an answer she can begin to understand.

“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. 
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

So, a literal mockingbird is a creature who sings beautiful music for the benefit of others and never does harm to anyone. A figurative mockingbird is someone who is innocent, who does kind things for others without asking for anything in return. Those kinds of people, according to Atticus, deserve to be protected. Anyone who tries to hurt them is committing a sin, because these kind-hearted people have done nothing but make the world a better place for those around them. 

In this novel, two characters could be considered mockingbirds, and Harper Lee makes sure we make the connection. The first is Tom Robinson, a man who did nothing to deserve trouble except try to help a young girl who seemed desperately lonely and seemed to need his help. In exchange for that innocent act of kindness, he is accused of rape and will eventually pay the highest price for that kind deed. This is why Atticus defends Tom. Mr. Underwood, who has no real love for the black people in town, describes Tom's death as being similar to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children.” This is a clear argument that he is an innocent who did not deserve to die.

Later in the novel, we know that Scout has understood this important concept about mockingbirds when she tells her father that doing something to Boo Radley would be“sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.” Like Tom, Boo has never done anything but act with kindness to others, especially the Finch children, and she understands that she must do her part to help protect him. 

The entire premise of the accusations against Tom and Atticus's decision to "really" defend him is based around this theme of killing mockingbirds. It is a lawyer's job to defend his client no matter what; it is even more important when that client is unequivocally innocent but being prosecuted simply because he is black. Such an injustice should not stand undefended because it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. 

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This quotation that serves as the basis for the title of  the novel...

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first appears inChapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout questions Miss Maudie about it, remembering that Atticus had once told Jem (after receiving air rifles as Christmas presents) that

"I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds."

Scout tells Maudie that it was "the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something..." Maudie explains that Atticus is right. Mockingbirds are harmless, innocent creatures that have no negative characteristics. Unlike blue jays and other birds, mockingbirds only make music for people 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."

According to Atticus and Maudie, mockingbirds are one of God's fragile creatures that bring only happiness to humans and should be protected, rather than persecuted. This symbolism eventually transcends into the human mockingbirds of the story, such as Tom and Boo.

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Atticus tells Jem that he can kill all the bluejays he wants but it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. What does this mean?

Atticus is a good teacher who enlightens his children with teachable moments at every possible moment. The effect of this on the reader is that we think about the moral or truth Atticus presents as well.

Atticus wants his children to be fair to all people, but particularly to people who have done nothing wrong. I think this quote does more than show us his feelings about the other innocent people in the book: Boo and Tom. With the phrase "kill all the bluejays you want" I think Atticus is showing that people deserve consequences for their actions. Bob Ewell should have been locked away long before he had the opportunity to attack the children. Conversely, Tom Robinson should have been allowed to live a peaceful life with his wife and children because he did nothing wrong.

Likewise, in society, we have to hold those who do bad accountable and praise those who do us good.

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Atticus tells Jem that he can kill all the bluejays he wants but it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. What does this mean?

Atticus says this to Jem in chapter 10 when Jem gets a gun for the first time.  Like many young boys, Jem just wants to shoot whatever he can.  Atticus tells him he can shoot bluejays because they are considered a nuisance bird.  Bluejays make a raucous sound, they steal other birds' nests and drive away other birds, etc.  Mockingbirds, however, are not a nuisance bird.  Mockingbirds, according to Atticus, simply sing their hearts out for our entertainment.  The idea is that it is wrong to harm something - like a mockingbird - that does no harm and, in fact, actually does good.  This is one of the central themes of the book.  Boo Radley is like the mockingbird.  Boo does no harm to anyone with his odd ways and by the end of the story, has actually done a great deal of good by saving Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell.  The children, especially early in the story, delighted in playing games that mocked Boo Radley and made fun of him.  After Boo saves the children and Sheriff Tate realizes that Jem didn't kill Bob Ewell, but that Boo Radley did, Tate refuses to arrest Boo.  He says that it would be wrong to force him, with his shy ways, into the limelight that would ensue if people knew how heroic he'd been.  Scout, hearing this, tells her dad, who is concerned about the ethics and legality of it, that bringing attention to Boo would be like shooting a mockingbird.

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