The mockingbird is a powerful motif and metaphor that is recurrent in the story. The title itself – “To Kill a Mockingbird” is revealing enough. The mockingbird is a songbird found in the North American continent, and is the state bird of Texas. We shall come to look at what the bird symbolizes by first looking at its treatment in the text.
Reference is made to the mockingbird many a time in the story, and it is first mentioned in Chapter 10. Atticus says, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This revelation on Atticus’s part was backed up by Miss Maudie saying, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest 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.”
The two most respected and trusted adults in Jem and Scout’s lives say this when they get their air rifles. The rifles appear to the children as a symbol of strength, power and bravery when they are able to overcome another creature. Later Atticus dispels this belief of theirs when he remarks that true bravery and strength comes not from being able to shoot, but being able to live up to oneself. This also foreshadows the difficulties that Jem faces when he tries to come to terms with the recent happenings in Maycomb. As the shooting of a mockingbird is considered a sin, the loss of innocence is also considered wrong. The mockingbird can thus be considered a symbol for innocence in the story, and also of individuals who are wrongfully persecuted for their wrongdoing and inability to comply with conventional social standards.
Another reference to “mockingbirds” appears in Chapter 21, where Scout compares the atmosphere in the courtroom as one that is similar to a winter’s day, where the mockingbirds were still. The absence of mockingbirds tells of the loss of innocence that was to come when the results of the jury’s decision would be announced, when Tom Robinson would be persecuted.
The first of such “mockingbirds” would be Jem and Scout Finch. As a lawyer’s children, they can and have seen much more than any child would have seen at their age. They are pushed to face the stark realities of life and the society which they live in, almost inevitably necessary. This is related to the notion of schooling versus education, and of moral upbringing, which may impair or spur the child’s development. In this case, we see that Atticus makes a good parent who acts as the children’s educator, as he their role model and imparts to them his values and believes. In the last Chapter Atticus speaks about his experiences at being an educator. “Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him…” he says. The children coming to terms with prejudices and inequality seem premature to some stoic believers in tradition, such as Aunt Alexandra, who frequently comments that Scout is too young to be doing what she does.
Jem’s case is much more complicated than Scout’s, as he is embarking on his formative years. Although it can be said that both children lose any innocence they might have before the trial, as well as nave notions about the society in which they live in, there is a difference in the way their learning takes place. Jem is expected to and eventually figures things out for himself and in the midst becomes irritable and foreign to Scout. Scout, however, is still puzzled about Jem’s withdrawal and at any problem, consults Atticus and displays her naivet when doing so.
The next “mockingbird” would be Atticus, the children’s father. He is asked to take on the Robinson-Ewell case and gladly does so, which is telling of his fine character. It is also mentioned many a time that Atticus was taking on a job which no one else desired to take – the “dirty job”. He is representative of the moral conscience of the community which is held in disregard by majority of its members. He is despised by Bob Ewell, and is commonly the topic for gossip of the townspeople. Even in Scout’s school there is talk about “defending niggers”, which causes her to engage in a fight. This also relates to a value that Atticus tries to instill in his children, that we should always remain true to our conscience. In Atticus’s case innocence is not lost, rather he is old and has seen too much to care. He is extremely exhausted after the case is completed as he had done his best, although he is not certain of a victory. This perfectly characterizes the pleasant sounds that the mockingbird gives to us each day, no matter how it may turn out.
Another important “mockingbird” would be Tom Robinson. He is representative of the whites’ prejudices against their coloured counterparts. He is the focus at which the men’s consciences fail them and values disintegrate into a blind following of a belief which eventually leads them to fear and hate. Although judgment goes along with sympathy when the reader is reviewing Tom’s case, and the evidence is enough to substantially show that he is innocent, our sympathy is evoked and so that we already are in accept that he is innocent before the evidence is displayed. Our sympathy is further stretched when he is killed while trying to escape from the prison. At the end of Chapter 25, it is mentioned that Mr. Underwood likened Tom’s death to the “senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children”.
In Chapter 28 it was mentioned that “a solitary mocker” was singing in a tree in the Radley’s compound. Although Arthur “Boo” Radley was drawn up to be frightening and insane, unlike the mockingbird which is endeared to innocence and love. However ultimately he is likened to the mockingbird. He is a recluse and is never seen outside the house except at the end of the story, which foreshadows his heroic rescue of the children from Bob Ewell’s violent disposition. In Chapter 23, Jem remarks that Boo actually stays inside the house because he wants to. So jaded is Boo by the many insincerities that the people commit as they betray their own conscience that he deliberately and purposefully shields himself from the harsh and callous truths.