Essential Passage by Theme: Loss of Innocence
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165
When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That’s the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father is 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.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 10, p. 90 (Harper Perennial: New York)
Jem and Scout lament that Atticus is old, as far as fathers in Maycomb go. Plus, he does not do anything that the other children’s fathers do. He does not have an interesting job, for instance; he only sits in an office all day. He does not play football or any sports. He wears glasses and does not seem to participate in any of the “fun” entertainments in the community. Their Uncle Jack, however, is different. For Christmas, Uncle Jack (Atticus’s younger brother) had given Jem and Scout air rifles, a present that Atticus looks at with some trepidation. He allows the children to keep them, yet he himself would have nothing to do with them and refused to teach Jem and Scout to shoot. It is left to Uncle Jack to show them the basic skills of shooting. Bowing to the inevitable, however, Atticus merely tells the children, Jem especially, that he would rather they shoot at tin cans in the back yard. However, knowing that they will also shoot at birds, he urges them to shoot at blue jays but not at mockingbirds, since it is “a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Because it was unusual for Atticus to talk about “sin,” Scout asks their neighbor, Miss Maudie, about it. Miss Maudie is in total agreement with Atticus.
In this passage, the phrase used as the title of the novel is introduced. The peaceful innocence of the mockingbirds becomes a major symbol that occurs throughout the novel for many of the characters, and it is used to explore the ways in which each character faces the ugliness of the world.
One of the “mockingbirds” is Dill. Trying to escape from the conflict of his parents’ broken marriage, Dill has come to Maycomb and befriended Jem and Scout. Through the succession of three summers, Dill enlivens the play of the children with his wild imagination. Dill has used this imagination as a refuge, a haven from the life he left behind. Telling Jem and Scout a succession of impossible lies about his missing father, Dill has created for himself a “livable” world. His friendship, a relationship that has been denied him by his parents, brings joy to Jem and Scout. However, Dill has to face the ugliness that exists in the world. When his mother remarries, he faces the fact that the two adults are so wrapped up in themselves that they have no time left over for him. So he runs away to Maycomb to be among people who love and appreciate him. Yet even there, he faces the ugliness of racism, as he observes the trial of Tom Robinson. Literally made sick to his stomach, Dill’s efforts to see the world in the glow of his imagination is damaged. Even he cannot make a marvelous story out of this horror.
Tom Robinson himself is another “mockingbird.” Innocent of the crime for which he is tried, he has to face the evil of hatred simply because of the color of his skin. His noble life has brought joy to those with whom he has come into contact. Even with Mayella Ewell, he has tried to “sing his heart out” by helping her, something which her family cannot seem to do. Yet in his “singing” he is killed, crushed by the racism that is entrenched in the community. With his death, Dill, Jem, and Scout come face to face with the sin that has killed this mockingbird.
Finally, Boo Radley exemplifies the mockingbird motif. Hidden in the shadows throughout the novel, he comes into the light, or rather half-light, only at the end. In his quiet way, through the gifts left in the tree and the blanket around Scout’s shoulders the night of the fire that destroys Miss Maudie’s house, Boo has been singing his song to the children that so fascinate him. Despite the horror stories that they tell about Boo, Jem and Scout come to know the true nature, the true goodness of Mr. Arthur Radley at last.
In the many times that Atticus has caught the three children playing “Boo Radley,” Jem, Scout, and Dill have in a way been trying to kill that mockingbird. In fact, they denied that the mockingbird existed, or even could exist. In a way that echoes the racism of the white community toward the Black community, especially toward Tom Robinson, the children have built up a view of Boo based solely on a preconceived notion that is completely wrong. Yet from that notion they have developed a pattern of behavior that seeks to destroy the true nature of Boo by pretending that it could not possibly exist.
When the sheriff, Heck Tate, comes to question Scout at the Finch home after the attack by Bob Ewell, he encounters Boo hidden once again in the shadows. However, Scout, seeing at last the true nobility and innocence of Arthur Radley, brings him out of the shadows and into the light. She stops trying “to kill the mockingbird.” Sheriff Tate himself goes even further. Atticus believes that it was Jem who stuck the knife into Bob Ewell, killing him. Disregarding Tate’s denials that it was not Jem, he cannot see the direction in which the sheriff is going. Eventually it becomes clear that it was not Jem but Boo who killed the attacker.
It is through Sheriff Tate that Boo’s identification with the mockingbird of the title becomes most clear. The sheltered innocence of Boo’s life would be threatened should he be brought to trial for the death of Bob Ewell, even though he would most likely be acquitted as a hero. It is the hero worship that would “kill” the mockingbird, Tate believes. The people, especially the women, would bother him continually with food and praise for such a brave act. Such attention would ultimately destroy who Boo is, his innocence, and his quiet love for the children of Atticus Finch.