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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Student Question

What is Tom's death compared to by Mr. Underwood in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Quick answer:

Mr. Underwood compares Tom Robinson's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children. This metaphor highlights Tom's innocence and the cruelty of his death, much like Atticus's earlier warning to Scout and Jem about not killing mockingbirds. Underwood's editorial underscores the theme that society often harms its most innocent and vulnerable members.

Expert Answers

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Mr. Underwood compares Tom Robinson’s death to children senselessly killing birds.

When Helen Robinson hears the news of her husband’s death, she does not react at all.  She falls to the ground, and Dill compares it to a child squashing a bug in the dirt. 

"[She] just fell down in the dirt. Just fell down in the dirt, like a giant with a big foot just came along and stepped on her. Just ump-" Dill's fat foot hit the ground. "Like you'd step on an ant." (Ch. 25)

This is related to Mr. Underwood’s scathing comparison of Tom’s shooting children shooting birds, just as the title of the book suggests.

He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in The Montgomery Advertiser. (Ch. 25)

This is a reference to Atticus’s comment earlier that Scout and Jem should not shoot mockingbirds with the guns they got for Christmas, because all they do is make sweet music that people like to listen to.  Underwood, and therefore Lee, is reminding us that Robinson is a mockingbird.  He was an innocent who was wrongly targeted for someone else’s benefit.

Helen’s inability to respond to her husband’s death is more than just a showing of grief.  It demonstrates how she has been treated by society.  She is the bug. Just as children play with bugs and squish the roly-poly bugs for no reason, because they can, there is literally nothing she can do about her husband’s death.  She and her husband are helpless.  Society will not help them.  Although she is grieving for her husband, she also feels the pain of knowing that she is helpless.

One of the main themes of the story is that the people that society throws away are the ones that it should value most.  Tom Robinson was a kind man, who took pity on a young girl and tried to help her when no one else would.  Like the other mockingbird in the story, Boo Radley, he is disenfranchised and helpless, but society is better off for having him in it.  The people of Maycomb who look out for them, like Atticus, Mr. Underwood, and the children, cannot help them alone.  It will take more than a good closing argument and a scathing editorial to bring about change.

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Several days after the prison guards killed Tom Robinson, B. B. Underwood wrote an editorial in The Maycomb Tribune. One key phrase that Scout picks up on is “senseless slaughter.” Scout notes that Underwood had referred to Tom as a “cripple”—a term that formerly was frequently applied to people with disabilities—and she initially assumes that his criticism is directed toward the guards because they shot a partially disabled person, which would be wrong whether that person was “standing, sitting, or escaping.” What prompts Scout to analyze the editorial further, however, is Underwood’s use of “slaughter” along with “hunters and children.” In this regard, Underwood is not only comparing the guards to predators and Tom to animal prey but also judging the guards’ actions as childish. Tom, in his estimation, resembles a “songbird.” While Underwood strongly criticizes the guards’ action, he avoids discussing the trial, and he explicitly omits any discussion of race. Scout makes those connections on her own.

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In chapter 25, Scout mentions that the citizens of Maycomb were interested in the news of Tom's tragic death for two days before they forgot about it. However, Scout recalls reading an article written by Mr. Underwood in The Maycomb Tribune in which he expressed his displeasure and disgust at Tom Robinson's tragic death. Scout mentions that Mr. Underwood did not elaborate or speak on miscarriages of justice and simply believed that it was a sin to kill "cripples." In the article, Mr. Underwood likened Tom Robinson's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds at the hands of merciless hunters.

Mr. Underwood's analogy directly corresponds to Atticus's lesson regarding the importance of protecting innocent, defenseless beings when he explains to his children that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird in chapter ten. After reading Mr. Underwood's article, Scout finally understands its meaning and mentions,

Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed. (Lee, 245)

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In Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" the author sticks to her theme of innocents being killed or harmed by society.  In Mr. Underwood's editorial after Tom Robinson's death he wrote as "if he were writing to children.  He felt it was wrong to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping.  He likened Tom's death to the sensless slaughter of songbirds, by hunters and children." (pg. 254)  As was stated earlier in the novel, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because they do no harm to anyone.

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, to what did Mr. B.B. Underwood compare Tom's conviction and death?

The passage that you are looking for is a couple pages into chapter 25, and are key passages that relate to the theme and title of the novel.  B.B. Underwood writes about Tom's death and conviction in the newspaper, and he "was at his most bitter" about the events that occurred.  He writes an editorial, which is usually a piece of writing that expresses your opinion on important topics of the day.  Newspapers like to feature editorials on current events, that express differing viewpoints on issues.  Underwood, in his editorial,

"likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children."

He basically compares Tom to an innocent songbird that is going about living his life, bringing happiness to his family and working hard, that is shot down for sport, cruelty or pleasure by other people.  It is in this passage, connected with a couple other passages where Atticus says it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, that the title of the story comes from.  Tom is compared to a mockingbird that is senselessly killed by the town.  Mr. B.B. Underwood is the one to clarify and bring out this point, and it is a major theme throughout the novel, a theme of the innocent suffering because of other people's cruelty and prejudices.  I hope that helps a bit; good luck!

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