In this novel, the most significant symbol is the mocking bird. A mocking bird is a type of Finch: a small, discrete bird with a beautiful song, which ‘mocks’ or imitates the other birds’ song. One of the most explicit references made about mocking birds is that in chapter 10. Atticus is telling Scout and Jem how to use their shotguns for the first time, he says, ‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit’em but remember it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.’ Harper Lee uses symbolism implicitly to liken mocking birds to certain characters and explicit references to describe the atmosphere created by events throughout the book.
Mocking birds are used throughout the novel to represent innocence; Miss Maudie explains this to Scout. Scout is surprised to hear non-judgemental Atticus calling anything a sin. She asks Miss Maudie why Atticus has said it is wrong and she replies with the explanation, ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t mess 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.’ By saying this Miss Maudie is saying they do nothing to threaten us our harm us and are effectively innocent, so why kill them pointlessly.
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Mocking birds are reflected explicitly during the narrative connecting it to times of tension. Chapter 12 sees the mad dog incident take place, the mocking birds are thought to fall silent at this point, as there is a real threat present. Scout fails to comment on the mocking birds at this point because of it. As in chapter 12, Chapter 21 informs us of the waiting before the jury’s verdict. ‘The trees were still, the Mockingbirds were silent’, this is an implicit sign that the jury decision means a threat towards Tom Robinson’s existence. Later, we find out he is found guilty, imprisoned and left to await his death in jail. Both events have one similarity, Tension. This is created when Atticus aims at the rabid dog and defies all expectations when he hits it the first time and when the Finch family is waiting for the jury’s verdict at Tom Robinson’s case. The silence of the mockingbirds at both events symbolizes the tension in the atmosphere.
Both events are linked, also, because of Scout’s memory. She makes a mental connection in the courtroom to the rabid dog. The dog is diseased and as Atticus claims in the courtroom, ‘He does not have Maycomb’s usual disease’, meaning racism. Mocking birds are also a symbol of vulnerability; this is highlighted in both implicit and explicit ways. An explicit reference of this is when Mr. Underwood writes an article about Tom’s death the day after; he likens it to the ‘senseless slaughter of songbirds.’ This means mocking birds are vulnerable to those who wish to slaughter them. Mr. Underwood’s racist attitudes change at this point in the novel and he begins to believe that Tom is innocent and was only persecuted because of his race. He realizes because of the colour of his skin he was at a disadvantage and therefore more vulnerable to others. The implicit reference linking mocking birds to vulnerability is when Scout tries to reassure Atticus that Bob Ewell fell on his knife and the fact that Boo should be left alone and not showered with gifts because of his courageous actions.
Scout says, ‘Well it’d sort of being like shootin’ a Mockingbird, wouldn’t it?’ by doing this she is relating Boo to a mockingbird because he is vulnerable and to draw attention towards a vulnerable person would be a sin in itself, as Heck Tate claims. When the mocking bird sings it brings harmony to the atmosphere and is a symbol of beauty. In Chapter 28, when Scout and Jem are on their way to the pageant, Scout reports that the mocking bird ‘pours out his repertoire in blissful unawareness of whose tree he sat in, ‘as they pass a tree by the Radley place. The mocking bird is highlighting its innocence in that it doesn’t understand whose tree it is sitting in and that it could be a threat to its existence.
Many of the main characters in the book have the characteristics of a mocking bird. One of the most explicit references to a mocking bird is Atticus’s name, Finch. A mocking bird is a type of Finch and by calling him Atticus Finch, it makes a direct connection between the bird and the character. Atticus’s job is that of a lawyer, in the courtroom, he fights for equality and anti-racism, by doing this he imitates the opinions of the people in Maycomb. Aunt Alexandra reveals her opinions on his about the rest of the county, when she says, ‘I mean this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re afraid to do themselves.’ She claims this when she is upset and feels the need to release her emotion, which is not shown by her in the novel.
He also recreates the actions of a bird; for example, when he focuses on people he only uses his single ‘good’ eye, just as a bird would do as their eyes are on the sides of their heads. However, the mocking bird is particularly associated with two characters, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. There are many parallels between these two characters; they have much in common. They serve the purpose that people are not so easily judged despite the town’s preconceived notions of them both, they aren’t what others think of them and don’t have the power to fight back because of their vulnerability. No one truly knows them but they make outrageous claims nonetheless. Since no one sees Boo Radley, it is easy to make accusations and spread rumours about him. He is reclusive and introverted, he shies away from the town, which gives them free rein to make up stories about him, for example, the children believe ‘he eats raw cats and squirrels, so his hands would be permanently blood-stained’.
Tom Robinson is a black man who is persecuted because of the stereotypical society he lives in, which has been like it for so many years. In the county, white men and women have always feared black males and the power they hold. This is perpetuated in the courtroom by stories of white women being raped by black men, this is highlighted when Mayella Ewell, a white woman, makes a charge of rape against Tom Robinson. Tom’s judgement comes not from the facts but the stereotypes that clouded every jury member and every white citizen of the town. In this way, he is vulnerable to white people. Nobody takes the time to understand Tom but only fear and hate him wrongly. Both are persecuted, Tom is vulnerable to white people and their prejudices because of this he is jailed and sentenced to death. Boo is vulnerable because of his characteristics and the fact he is a recluse and chooses to stay inside.
This makes him easily persecuted by the children and the people of Maycomb when they make stories and gossip about him. Boo Radley was dominated by his father, as he was ‘locked in the court-house basement’ and wasn’t seen for fifteen years after he was arrested for being a member of the ‘nearest thing to a gang’ in Maycomb. This has made him into a shadow of a human being and caused him to stay inside for his entire life. The white citizens of Maycomb equally dominate Tom Robinson throughout his life, throughout his trial and when he is sent to prison. Such domination led Tom to try and escape from prison and in doing so cause his death.
Both characters are caring, for example, Boo Radley gives Jem and Scout two figurines, chewing gum, a tarnished metal, pocket watch and an aluminum knife via a knot-hole in a tree in the Radley property. However, Mr. Radley cements the hole so Boo cannot send gifts to the children anymore, this is also an example of Boo’s domination. Tom Robinson helps Mayella Ewell on her property do many chores, as he feels sorry for her. On the evening of his accused crime, he was asked by Mayella to fix a door in the house. He never accepted any money from Mayella for doing these tasks. In this way he is alike a mocking bird, he is caring. Harper Lee uses all these devices to accentuate the symbol of a mocking bird.
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