A symbol is something that is used to represent something else. It can be simple, like a logo being used to represent a company. In literature, symbols can be objects, characters, ideas, or even colors that are used to represent larger concepts. Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is full of symbols. Each symbol has a deeper meaning that leads the reader to understand the greater themes of the novel.
The mockingbird is one of the most obvious symbols in the novel, mainly because it’s in the title and there’s usually a picture of a mockingbird on the cover. In the novel, Scout and Jem learn that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because they don’t do anything to harm other creatures and therefore should never be harmed.
In the novel, several characters can be symbolic mockingbirds. Surely Tom Robinson, accused of a crime he didn’t truly commit, can be the top on that list. Tom’s innocence stems from the fact that he tried to help a fellow human being and ended up losing his life over it, all due to circumstances outside of his control (like being black).
Jem and Scout are also mockingbirds in the novel, in that they lose some of their innocence due to their exposure to the evil in the world. Throughout the course of the novel, they learn about cruelties in life: from Tom’s trial to Dolphus Raymond’s essential exile from white society to the incidents with Bob Ewell toward the end of the novel. Ewell’s attempt at killing the children is one more example of their mockingbird status as well.
Finally, Boo Radley is a mockingbird in this novel. Though he had some not-so-innocent times in his past (like stabbing his father with a pair of scissors or running around town with a “bad crowd”), the imprisonment he has lived with for years under the hands of his parents and brother gives him mockingbird status in the novel. The way he has become a town ghost story also shows the cruelty he faces from the people of Maycomb, whether they mean to be cruel or not.
Aside from being a mockingbird character, Boo Radley also shows the reader how Scout grows up throughout the novel (and, by some extension, Jem as well). In the beginning, the kids all like to play Boo Radley games, pretending to be him or telling scary stories about him. As they progress throughout the novel, they begin to discover that he might not be the town spook they fear he is. In the end, they realize that he is a caring, sensitive man who has done them a hero’s service. This growing understanding of Boo Radley is symbolic of the overall maturity that Scout and Jem experience in the novel.
The characters in To Kill a Mockingbird portray stereotypes and classic roles. Scout is the epitome of an innocent child, and through her eyes we see events unfold that change her status and broaden her awareness of the world around her. Due to her innocence in the beginning of the novel, we have to view her as an unreliable narrator because her views on the situations in the novel are somewhat skewed by her inexperience with the evils in the world.
Bob Ewell symbolizes the evils of racism. He is uneducated, poor, and rude. He has an abusive parenting style and an adamant distrust of outsiders. His feelings toward Tom Robinson are misdirected as a result of his anger at Mayella for kissing a black man. His attempt to attack Scout after the school pageant shows that he is absolutely evil, because he has already destroyed one innocent life and is ready to take another simply for the sake of saving his pride.
Atticus symbolizes logical thinking; he is able to act on the right thing while still trying to keep the peace in the small town he loves. His upstanding morality is characterized by a lack of pride, in stark contrast to Bob Ewell (we see this when his own children don’t even know he’s a perfect shot, for example). As he instructs Scout and Jem on the proper ways to behave, he symbolizes a teacher for all of the novel’s readers as well.
Walter Cunningham, Sr. can be used to symbolize the possibility of change. Mr. Cunningham’s situation isn’t all that different from Bob Ewell’s; the main difference is that Ewell seems content to take handouts while Cunningham works for everything he has, even if it isn’t much. Cunningham is a visible presence in the lynch mob that visits Tom Robinson in jail, but his conversation with Scout marks a turning point. If he is willing to see beyond his own hatred and listen to the voice of innocence and reason, perhaps Ms. Lee used him as a symbolic example to the rest of us that such a thing could be possible outside of Maycomb, too.
This post is part of the series: To Kill a Mockingbird
A series of study guide articles on To Kill a Mockingbird, from character descriptions to plot summaries and an analysis of the novel’s symbolism.