Mockingbirds: Symbols of innocence


To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

In the sleepy town of Maycomb (Alabama), set in the middle of The Great Depression, Harper Lee brings about timeless themes and skepticism of race, morality and ethics, feminism, and social class. The story is narrated by Scout Finch; a rambunctious, intelligent, and curious child. The majority of the plot revolves around the trial that is about to take place in which her father, Atticus, is defending an African-American man named Tom Robinson, much to the dismay of the small country-town community. Through Scout’s perspective, we are invited to see the world through a child’s eyes that bring to light many devastating truths about society that still resonate with us today.

Taking place in the Jim Crow south, Atticus’s decision to defend Tom Robinson warrants the immediate disproval of those around him. However, as a man who is determined to “walk in others’ shoes”, Atticus empathizes with Tom and does his best to protect him, even going as far as sitting in front of the jailhouse faced by a mob of angry men. As the trial progresses, the hatred and racism of the town is exposed as ultimately Tom is rendered guilty, though there is no sufficient evidence that he ever committed a crime. The jury unjustly sides with Mayella Ewell because she is a white woman, and in the end, Tom Robinson is sent to jail and later gunned down (several times) for trying to escape.

Throughout the novel, Atticus preaches morality to Scout and her brother Jem, and is determined to get them to understand how they should treat people. In addition to the court case, Lee introduces us to Arthur “Boo” Radley, the local recluse who has been locked away in his house for years and only comes out to place small gifts for the children in the tree. Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill are convinced that the Radley house is haunted, and spend much of their time trying to get him to come out of the house so they can see him. At the end of the novel, Boo saves Jem’s life by killing Bob Ewell, and Scout finally sees him as a human being, as opposed to a monster. Although Scout quickly warms up to him, Boo returns to his house never to be seen again.

In the novel, Atticus states that “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”, which serves as a metaphor to the world around them. Mockingbirds, as a representation of harmless, innocent creatures, can be seen as the many instances that occur in the novel: the way that African Americans are treated, the way that Boo Radley is treated by the gossiping neighbors and even by the children (at one point) taunting him, and Jem and Scout’s vulnerability to a racist world. In the novel, Atticus teaches us powerful lessons on how we should all be more empathetic towards one another; this being an imperative value that still rings true in present society.

I could not find the full movie online, but I have attached the trailer for the documentary “Hey, Boo” on Harper Lee.


4 thoughts on “Mockingbirds: Symbols of innocence

  1. Thanks for this post, VM. I appreciate your mention of the mockingbird as metaphor because I believe it’s important to speculate about the many suggestions of Atticus’s statement. I wonder whether Atticus might’ve meant to imply that it’d be a sin to kill Tom Robinson – a man who doesn’t literally make beautiful music, but perhaps makes figurative music by being good to his family and neighbors and therefore as harmless as a mockingbird. Atticus’s statement might be applied to one of the novel’s final scenes, too. Mr. Ewell sins in harming the noble and wise-beyond-his-years Jem. Finally, Atticus’s statement might be viewed as a theme of the novel. Atticus and others, such as Miss Maudie, teach Scout (and the reader) the value of nonviolence. This is a lesson that seems all the more critical when one considers the date of the novel’s publication – amidst the Civil Rights Movement.


  2. VM, what an amazing post! I really appreciate, like SD, the mentioning of the metaphor of the mockingbird. While reading this I really wanted to make deeper connections to the title, characters, and plot. After learning fairly quickly about mockingbirds, it helps me see those deeper connections that make this book such a classic. I think that your post also really helps me focus on Scout’s perspective. While it is only occasionally that we are reminded of Scout’s age and only late in the beginning of the book that we learn she is female, it helps the reader set themselves into this mindset of Scout. While this is an unusual and different five year old, the one thing we concentrate so highly on is her perceptiveness. She is completely aware of most of the things that one would not believe a five year old would be. While some question the validity of this five year old’s perception, others embrace it believing that a child at that age is very observant of everything. Knowing Scout’s surroundings and the people who so highly affect her, the reader can come to believe in the intelligence of the perception abilities of this child. I also really love that you stated about the vulnerability of these children to believe the flaws of their society. I think you phrased it exceptionally well and through this we can make connections as to why Scout is so perceptive for a five year old.
    – DML

  3. Like they say, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” As much as we like to milk a good thing, it was probably best that To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only novel. Other than the fact that her book touches on historically essential realities and controversies in a manner that can only be embraced by her audience, the novel has a depth to it that I believe keeps the reader’s imagination going beyond the novel’s last word. The first phenomenon is that Harper Lee’s words practically lure the attention of any one who can read on or beyond a fifth grade level, which means her text targets a broad audience–a feat that I believe is difficult and rarely achieved. Secondly, the style of her writing is nothing less than appropriate enough to maintain the attention of the reader from the first to the last word. Beyond the words that are easy to embrace are the stories that they weave within this text. Without hesitation, they invoke undeniable emotions and realizations that are returned with the reader’s new-found respect for the truths that are depicted. Thank you VM for sharing that brief, inspirational and agreeable clip about Harper Lee and her novel. I am sure that it is safe to say that although I have encountered this novel four times during my academic career (7th grade, 10th grade, college, grad school) I will likely crack it open many more times; not just because it’s a good read, but also because it has the astounding potential to be analyzed through many different lenses.

  4. Hey VM,
    This was a great summary of To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the main points that you mentioned was that we see, through Scout, a dark society, that is still with us today. Racial discrimination is still a major problem in our society today, and I found it interesting how your class was reading the book during the court case in Ferguson. The connection you made with the recent court case to the one in the novel brought the book to life. Students were able to see firsthand that the issues presented about 55 years ago are still present today. I remember that you also used the Golden Rule in the classroom, which was to treat others how you would want to be treated, which you linked to Atticus’s lesson. The moral of the story is a great one to teach at all times, which is to be empathetic to other will always be relevant. I can’t wait to teach this book in the future. JA

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