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Symbolism in to Kill a Mockingbird

By problemchildcc Jan 05, 2011 1040 Words
The critically acclaimed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, has been praised as one of the best novels of the century. It has made a significant impact on many peoples lives. It challenged and effectively changed the way many white southerners perceived African-Americans. The book, however, has been subject to much controversy over the years. Many people wanted to ban it because they claimed it was “immoral.” (Johnson 13-16). Nonetheless, To Kill a Mockingbird was a huge success. One of the reasons is because of Harper Lee’s effective use of symbolism to illustrate the evils of racism and ideology of whites in the South (Smykowski 52). The Mad Dog as Symbol by Carolyn Jones, Symbolism and Racism in To Kill A Mockingbird by Adam Smykowski, and The Boundaries of Form by Claudia Durst Johnson, all communicate similar ideas on the use of symbolism in To Kill A Mockingbird.

One of the major symbols in the book, comes from its title, To Kill a Mockingbird. It is taken from a scene in the book where Atticus Finch gives his children air rifles for Christmas. He tells them that they are free to shoot other birds, such as bluejays, if they wish, “but remember,” he says, “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Their neighbor, Miss Maudie, co-signs Atticus, saying “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but music for us to enjoy... That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (Lee 103). This may seem meaningless at first, however there is a deeper, symbolic meaning behind it. According to Adam Smykowski, “The bluejays represent the prejudiced ‘bullies’ of Maycomb County, such as, Bob Ewell.” He continues, “Mockingbirds are innocent, and all they do is sing beautiful songs. They would not harm anyone.” There are several ‘mockingbirds’ in the story, the most prominent one being Tom Robinson, and black people in general. They are innocent, meanwhile, the bullies like Bob Ewell (and other racist whites) take advantage of them (Smykowski 56).

Claudia Durst Johnson also agrees that Tom is symbolized by a mockingbird. She uses this quote from the book to prove her stance: “Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping. He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children.” Tom Robinson, even though innocent and harmless, was shot dead attempting to be free. That is why killing him was a sin, just like killing a mockingbird (Johnson 36-37).

Boo Radley is considered to be a mockingbird as well. “The mockingbird also symbolizes Boo Radley, since he is innocent, and would never harm anyone. He just stays inside because he does not want to face the corrupt and prejudiced world outside” (Smykowski 56). He saves Jem and Scout after they are attacked by Bob Ewell, and kills him in the process. The sheriff, Heck Tate, says that it would be a sin to identify Boo as the murderer. Scout responds by telling Atticus, “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (Johnson 36).

Johnson brings up another interesting point as well. She argues that, “the figure of the mockingbird reinforced by the realization that from the novel’s inception Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are caged birds.” Tom’s cage is the prisons he’s placed in, and “he is shot when he attempts to fly.” Boo also has been locked up in a cage (his house) by his father. Furthermore, they sing like mockingbirds, “they convey song stories through the lives that they live: Tom the black man and Boo the recluse singing through heir lives of mystery and gentleness.” As you can see, both Tom Robinson, and Boo Radley, are similar to mockingbirds, because they are “at the mercy of the community” (36-37).

Racial inequality is also shown through the mad dog. Atticus is given the responsibility to shoot a rabid dog which is terrorizing the citizens of Maycomb County. Carolyn Jones compares the mad dog, to the prejudice that is present in Maycomb, “The real mad dog in Maycomb is the racism that denies the humanity of Tom Robinson. Atticus takes on that mad dog. When Atticus makes his summation to the jury, he literally bares himself to the jury's and the town's anger" (43). Smykowski takes a similar approach in analyzing the mad dog scene, “Here the rabid dog, Tim Johnson, represents prejudice, and how, like a rabid dog, it spreads its disease throughout the South.” He goes on to say, “Atticus Finch is seen as the hero... as he kills racism and prejudice, not allowing it to spread itself any further.” Lee shows how improbable it was for Atticus rid Maycomb from the disease of racism alone. “Scout says the trial 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” (55). Tom Robinson himself is also treated like a mad dog when he is shot trying to escape (Jones 44).

As you can see, racism and social inequality are depicted through the use of symbolism in To Kill A Mockingbird. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, are prime examples of mockingbirds in this novel, innocents who are destroyed by evil (that is, racism and inequality). The rabid mad dog is also a symbol of the disease Maycomb has, which is prejudice. Atticus is alone in his struggle to kill the mad dog of Maycomb. All in all, it is apparent as to why To Kill A Mockingbird has received such popular reception throughout the years. Harper Lee’s first and only novel, will forever be a classic.

Works Cited
Smykowski, Adam. "Symbolism and Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird." In Readings on To
Kill a Mockingbird, ed. Terry O'Neill. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000, 52-56.

Johnson, Claudia Durst. "The Boundaries of Form." In To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994, 31-38.

Jones, Carolyn. "The Mad Dog as Symbol." In Readings on To Kill A Mockingbird, ed. Terry O’Neill. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000, 33-48.

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