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Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird
Transcript of Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird
characters who are mockingbirds:
Throughout the book, a number of characters:
can be identified as mockingbirds—innocents who have been injured or destroyed through contact with evil.
Mockingbirds turn up once more in the book, when Scout is telling Atticus she understands about not dragging Boo into court.
Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might. "Yes sir, I understand," I reassured him. "Mr. Tate was right."
Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it'd be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?" (30.66-68)
All Boo does is watch the neighborhood, leave trinkets for Jem and Scout, and protect them when they're attacked. Like killing a mockingbird, arresting Boo would serve no useful purpose, and harm someone who never meant anyone any harm. So over the course of the novel, killing mockingbirds is associated with the sinful, the pointless, and the cruel.
On the one hand, linking particular characters to mockingbirds reduces them to the level of animals. On the other, it says that even animals are worthy of sympathy and the respect of being left alone if they're doing the same to you. By equating killing mockingbirds with wanton destruction, the book prompts us to take a step back from knee-jerk reactions (escaped convicts must be shot! murderers must be arrested!) and ask, what benefit is there? Why do this? What does it accomplish?
No mockingbirds were harmed in the making of this module.
Mr. Underwood's editorial after the death of Tom Robinson doesn't mention mockingbirds by name, but it does have a similar message. Mr. Underwood may be trying to get through to even the stupidest residents of Maycomb, but his editorial also makes sure that every reader gets the connection: the mockingbird and Tom are in the same class of beings. But why? Mr. Underwood says it's because of Tom's disability, though it's unclear why he thinks that makes a difference. Maybe it's along the lines of "women and children first": those thought to be weak should receive special protection.
Or maybe Tom's innocence of the crime he's accused of makes him similar to the mockingbird who does no harm to anyone. Or maybe it's the senselessness that's really key: killing Tom brought about no good and prevented no evil, just like shooting a mockingbird.
The Mad Dog
Meet Tim Johnson, a dog. He was just snuffling along, investigating interesting smells, burying bones only to dig them up again, and looking out for lady dogs, when—bam—the symbolic structure of the book picks him up and decrees he has to die. Why? What did poor Tim the Dog ever do to get infected with rabies and be gunned down like, well, a dog?
Mad dog and the gun
Atticus's skill with a gun was able to save the neighborhood from the mad dog; will he be able to do the same this time? The same image recurs once more as the jury delivers their verdict.
For example, after Scout turns away the lynch mob, her memory of Atticus in front of the jail merges with her memory of him shooting the dog.
But why does Scout associate the two images? Perhaps they're both examples of Atticus doing tough things he doesn't want to do; but must be done. (He does later refer to the men in the lynch mob as "animals" ).
The title of the book is
To Kill a Mockingbird
, so you're thinking that mockingbirds must be important. YOU'RE RIGHT! They first appear when Jem and Scout are learning how to use their shiny new air rifles. Atticus won't teach them how to shoot, but he does give them one rule to follow.
"I'd rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Why? Well, mockingbirds are harmless, innocent creatures, and killing them is wrong, because they don't hurt anyone. (The same could be said for cows, but hamburgers are so tasty, while mockingbirds presumably aren't.) But is this lesson so important in itself that it's worth putting it front and center on the cover of the book?
For starters, there's his name. It may seem odd to give an animal the last name of the family it belongs to, but it's apparently common practice in Maycomb. Judge Taylor's pooch gets the same
treatment. But more interestingly, it allows the dog's name to sound suspiciously like that of another character. Tim Johnson…Tom Robinson? Coincidence? Maybe. But Scout's memory of her father shooting the dog does pop up more than once in situations involving Tom, and doesn't get mentioned otherwise.
The incident with the mad dog, as well as the dog itself, are symbolic of many things...
"I saw something only a lawyer's child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty. A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson."
Even Atticus's talent for sharp-shooting can't do anything if the gun isn't loaded. It's tempting to try to map out the symbolism here—is the gun the legal process? are the bullets the jury? is Tim Johnson racism?—but that might be an oversimplification. Perhaps it's just the feeling Scout has that's the link between the two situations—the sick horror at what's happening, but knowing that it can't be any other way.
The mad dog:
On a very basic level, the dog represents
the rampant prejudice that Atticus combats.
Red geraniums symbolise Mayella's quest for a better life ; beauty in the midst of decay. Or, they symbolize the good that exists in everybody; no matter how corrupted one may be, the predisposition to good still exists. In the novel it is Atticus who tries to convince his children that this assertion is valid.
Among the trash and cast-offs in the Ewell yard, there's one spot of beauty.
"Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson, had Miss Maudie deigned to permit a geranium on her premises. People said they were Mayella Ewell's."
The snowman that Jem constructs out of mud and snow is symbolic of the two races in Macomb coming together as one. The capacity does exist for the two races to co-exist peacefully. It is Atticus who tells Jem that he is proud of his son's creation.
The fire that destroys Miss Maudies house is symbolic in an almost oxymoronic way. At first, it represents that the town has the capacity to get together to help and protect one another. It also, however, illustrates that in the end, (when we are left with a the snowman melted into a mass of mud), that racism will prevail.
The blanket that Boo Radley puts over Scout's shoulders during the fire comes to foreshadow and symbolize protection and friendship.
The Radley Tree
The roots of the tree in Boo Radleys yard represent his desire to "reach out" to his neighbors, particularly Jem and Scout.
The tree's knot-hole that houses two soap dolls, chewing gum, good luck pennies, a ball of yarn, and a pocket watch not only represents Scouts presence in the world of a child but also the adult world.