Symbolism is an important aspect in this novel. Harper Lee was writing in the 1950s, a time when racial tension in America was an important social issue. She said that Maycomb is a ‘microcosm of America’ at that time. She grew up in a town called Monroeville in the 1930s. This is the same period that the book is set in. Her father came to Monroeville in 1902, which is only 37 years after the end of the American civil war. Between 1861 and 1865 the northern and southern states fought each other because the northern states wanted to stop slavery. At the end of the civil war the slaves were set free but the southerners resented this and carried on treating them as if they were inferior. There were 3.5 million black slaves in the 19th century. Nearly all the black people in the southern states were descended from slaves. Maycomb is set in Alabama, which is one of the slave states, and Harper Lee uses symbolism to pursue her opinions on racial and other prejudice issues.
Harper Lee lived the same life style as Scout and Jem when she was growing up, as her father was a lawyer, and there was a similar case concerning the rape of white women by black men during her childhood. Harper may have used symbols to make her point because the issues were difficult and the symbols gave a picture of her point of view without her writing about it directly. A symbol is something that stands for another idea, person or object. There is symbolism in the title of the novel, as the mocking bird is the central symbol of the novel, standing for anyone who is innocent, for example, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. The major themes of this novel are prejudice, (racism, social snobbery and sexism all appear), growing up, good and evil, courage and individuality. They are all supported by various symbols in the story.
In this essay I will be looking at the different symbols that Harper Lee uses, and analysing how each contributes to the overall effectiveness of the novel.
The mocking bird represents the innocent people in the story who are victims of prejudice. Innocent black people are separated from white society by the ‘colour bar’. The colour bar meant that black people were not allowed to use the same bus, go to school or drink in bars with white people. This continued in America until the 1960s. An example of this is when the children are sitting in the ‘coloured balcony’ at the trial. The innocents also include Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Boo is innocent of being a monster, and Tom is innocent of being a rapist. The mocking bird symbol appears repeatedly throughout the novel.
It first appears in chapter 10 when Atticus gives the children air rifles and tells them that ‘it’s a sin to kill a mocking bird’. Later, when Atticus shoots the rabid dog in chapter 10 we are told that ‘the mocking birds were silent’. This means that the innocents could not stand up for themselves and are suffering in silence. In Chapter 21 the mocking birds are still again while Tom Robinson (an innocent) is waiting for the jury’s verdict. After Tom’s death the local newspaper writes an article comparing his killing to ‘…the senseless slaughter of songbirds…’, and finally, when Scout is talking with Atticus about the sheriff’s plan to say that Bob Ewell ‘fell on his own knife’ she says that anything else would be ‘Sort of like shooting a mocking bird, wouldn’t it?’. This symbol is linked to the theme of prejudice, which is a major feature of this novel. The final time when it appears Scout uses it, and it shows that she is growing up and understanding her father more. Scout growing up is another of the themes of the novel, and the fact that she begins to understand her father’s point of view shows this happening.
The symbol of the mocking bird is effective because its use in the title makes it obvious when it appears in the book, and because songbirds are fragile creatures, who don’t do any harm. The idea is strengthened by their contrast with Blue Jays who are vicious and bully songbirds. The Blue Jays represent the people who are prejudiced and accusing. This might symbolise the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK was formed during the civil war and was strong in the southern states such as Alabama. It started in 1866 and was a terrorist organisation against blacks and people who befriended blacks. It used to beat and hang people. The members wore masks and hoods. In the 1920s it had 5 million members mainly in the southern states. This was only 10 years before the book is set. The jays go around in flocks and perhaps that is like the KKK members. An example of people acting like the Klan is when they all gang up and go to the jail to ‘get’ Tom Robinson.
The choice of the name Finch for the main characters’ surname shows that they are the side of the mockingbird as a finch is also a songbird, which shows that they are on the side of the innocents and that they are not prejudiced. This is demonstrated by Atticus’ defence of Tom Robinson at his trial.
Scout is the narrator of the novel. It is therefore written from the point of view of a female child. From reports of her childhood, Harper Lee was a tomboy like Scout. This shows that the novel may be autobiographical in the way that they both become aware of the prejudice happening around them. Scout is also a person without any power or status in Maycomb. Her nickname is Scout. A scout is someone who goes ahead of an army to see what is happening, so the idea here is that someone who is outside of the events and is very young is telling us what happened without any grown up prejudice.
Scout is also individual in the way that she dresses unconventionally and gets upset when Jem calls her a girl. Perhaps her clothes are a symbol of the fact that she has not yet learnt to be prejudiced like the ladies of Maycomb. Scout climbs into her treehouse and watches the children…’secretly sharing their misfortunes and minor victories. I longed to join them.’ This symbolises her wish to grow up and be an adult, although she is still outside that world she begins to see more of what is going on. The theme of growing up is another part of the novel. It is effective to have Scout as the narrator because you can tell that she is growing up by the way her language changes, and because she is a child it makes what she says believable. It doesn’t matter if she says something prejudiced or silly because she does not know better yet. It is also good having Scout as the narrator because as she is a child the adults have to explain things to her and it helps the reader to understand it. It is like explaining it to the reader and using Scout to communicate to us.
The Radley house has been shut up and uncared for a long time. It is in the dark because ..’oak trees kept the sun away..’. It is a place that frightens the children but they keep trying to lure Boo Radley out of it. Because the Radley house is meant to be a horrible and scary place it could symbolise growing up as the children are fascinated by it but scared of it as well. It also represents closed communication between the innocents and the rest of the world. The Radley house isn’t really frightening but people see it as frightening. This could be symbolising prejudice against black people or others. This symbol appears in other novels for similar effects, for example Spooky Cott in Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian is a place where someone lives cut off from the rest of the village. This symbol is effective because its stereo typical and the reader understands the image.
The day after Mrs Radley dies there is an unusual snowfall. ‘It hasn’t snowed in Maycomb since the Appomattox’. Jem builds a man with dirt and covers it with snow because there is not enough snow for a snow man. The dirt symbolises the black society and the snow symbolises the white society. This could mean several things. It could mean that the black and white are working together to make the snowman or it could mean that the white people are building their society on top of the black people. It could also be something to do with mixed race children or relationships. Scout says ‘I ain’t never heard of a nigger snowman’. The mixed snowman melts during the fire at Miss Maudie’s house. The fire could represent the prejudice of the community destroying any attempts to work together. The fire might also be reminding us about the fires use by the Ku Klux Klan during their attacks.
This symbol plays a major part in the book as this shows us what the people of Maycomb think. It is effective because it’s simple to understand for quite a difficult subject. Also, building a snowman fits in with the theme of growing up as Jem and Scout build it together and it is their first snowman.
The mad dog arrives in the town at the wrong season, like the snow does. ‘We could see him shiver like a horse shedding flies. His jaw opened and shut. He was alist, but he was being pulled gradually towards us’. The mad dog is dangerous but is also sick. The dog represents the prejudice of the people of Maycomb, which is dangerous and without reason. Atticus shoots the mad dog because the sheriff asks him to. The reason is that Atticus is a good shot. The symbolic reason is because Atticus is representing everything moral in Maycomb and has to shoot the prejudice. Atticus does not want to use the gun and has to be persuaded. This shows how Atticus feels about people. He does not like their prejudice but he respects everyone, for example, Mrs Dubose does not agree with him but he respects her courage. Atticus is representing the white people that supported the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s. He tries to respect everyone and persuade them rather than use a gun.
The use of the mad dog is effective because it is a strong picture of how foolish prejudice is and it also gives the reader a different impression of Atticus and shows him to be stronger than before. It also can be linked to the theme of courage, which appears in the book in different people.
The white camellias are very precious to Mrs Dubose. Jem destroys them. ‘He cut the tops off every camellia bush until the ground was littered.’ Mrs Dubose is one of the people who are prejudiced and she criticises Atticus for being ‘no better than the niggers and trash he works for’. Atticus doesn’t agree with her but he chooses to approve of what is good about her rather than to criticize the things he doesn’t like about her. Jem cuts off the heads of the white Camellias and this could represent Jem trying to put a stop to prejudice against white and black people. He is not successful because they grow back and Mrs Dubose says that to kill them he has to pull them up by the roots. This shows that to stop prejudice you have to stop it before it begins to grow. Mrs Dubose sends Jem a camellia when she dies. Her views are the same right up to the end of her life and this upsets Jem. However, she is courageous and deserves respect.
Three female characters in the book grow flowers. Mrs Dubose has camellias. Mayella Ewell grows ‘…six chipped enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums’. Mayella’s geraniums may represent blood because she is the cause of Tom Robinson’s death. They could also represent her dreams and desires being grown amongst the rubbish around her shack. Another meaning that is possible is that they represent the good that Atticus sees in everybody, as they grow amongst the rubbish and weeds. Mayella looks after the flowers carefully as carefully as Miss Maudie looks after her garden.
The symbolism of the flowers is effective because the camellias seem to be very strong and to be able to survive anything, like prejudice while the geraniums are fragile and need careful attention to live among the rubbish. The choice of scarlet also seems to make the geraniums more important.
Harper Lee uses symbolism throughout the novel. All the symbols create different effects but they all contribute to the overall effectiveness of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’. Even at the end of the book she uses the symbolism of the mocking bird as well as introducing the Grey Phantom, which seems to represent Boo. Because Harper Lee grew up in this kind of lifestyle, she has seen this type of prejudice and wants to get her point across in the style of a novel rather than a political article. This leads her to use symbolism so that difficult and possibly unwelcome ideas can be put across in simple pictures and situations. In conclusion, Harper Lee uses many different symbols and themes to create a strong view of the way people might have thought in the 1950s. At the time that Harper Lee was writing this novel, there was a lot of racial tension as black people were pushing to gain rights and white people were resisting, particularly in the southern states. If Harper Lee was trying to change people’s opinions, it isn’t very likely that she did because her support of black people isn’t very hidden in the novel. It seems unlikely that a prejudiced person would enjoy reading this book. The symbols are used to reinforce the themes that are already there in the story.