Symbolism in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'


It's a little known fact to most school students who have to read To Kill a Mockingbird that Harper Lee submitted her manuscript to the publishers as a collection of short stories. It was substantial revision by her editor, Tay Hohoff, that transformed it into the novel that we know.

Most of the symbols in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird are fairly obvious, but some are less so. Were they consciously created by the author? Suggested by the editor? Or is the role of symbolism unconnected to the author? Either way, it’s only by looking a little more closely at the book that we see just how subtly the motifs and ideas are interlinked, whether consciously or not. In doing so, we can explore what symbolism is in literature and perhaps elsewhere.

Let’s start with the clearest symbol: the mockingbird. Mockingbirds are songbirds, Mimus polyglossus, found in North America and elsewhere. They are best known for the habit of mimicking the songs of other birds and the sounds of insects, frogs and other amphibians, often loudly and repeatedly. This can be taken in a number of ways, as we will see in a moment. They are as a species related to the finch, so it’s probably no accident that the family’s chief family is called Finch. The sin of killing a mockingbird that is commonly put forward is that one is murdering an otherwise harmless and even beautiful creature. In the novel, the accused black man Tom Robinson, can be seen as a ‘mockingbird’; so can the mysterious neighbour Boo Radley, who like the bird is a victim of children; and so can Scout, the young heroine and narrator of the tale, who ‘sings’ in a childlike way. Tom and Boo are innocent victims and subject to irrational prejudice; both are ‘caged’, one by the state, the other by his family. Perhaps we can also infer that Scout is 'caged' by her naiveté.

The mockingbird could also represent the innocence of childhood which is ‘killed’ in various ways for the children, Scout, Jem and Dill. But something not usually stressed is that the mockingbird is an imitator which has no song of its own and simply copies the music of others. This can be extended as a symbol, then, into the realms of the town of Maycombe as a whole, in which the majority of the population ‘mimic’ each others’ prejudice. This can even be seen as reflecting upon Scout herself, who throughout the book tends to mimic those around her until she develops her own viewpoint at the end of the book, effectively ‘killing the mockingbird’ of blind imitation.

The mockingbird first appears in Chapter 10, when Atticus tells the children, ‘Shoot all the bluejays you want... but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird’. Miss Maudie explains explicitly that this is because mockingbirds do no harm, but only make music for people to enjoy. In Chapter 30, where Scout recognises that the public exposure of Boo would be ‘sort of like shootin' a mockingbird’, that connection is also made explicit. The bird crops up as well in Chapter 10, after the killing of the rabid dog, Tim Johnson; in Chapter 21, while they wait for the trial verdict; in Chapter 25 in newspaper editor Underwood's article; and in Chapter 21 as the children head for the pageant.

‘Mocking’ occurs quite a bit in the story: the children mock Boo Radley by making up stories about him (which, we find out, he probably overheard); Mayella accuses Atticus of mocking her at the trial (which is itself a mockery). The image of the mockingbird contains the concept of what is passed down within a family as Atticus passes ideas on to Scout. So imitation can either be the vice of unwanted mockery and the inherited prejudice of racism, or the more noble and necessary virtue of the social endowment of principles and morals from generation to generation.

Flowers occur throughout the novel too: Mrs Dubose's camellias could represent prejudices which, when Jem rashly cuts off their heads, symbolise a youthful and simplistic approach which doesn’t get at the roots of the racism and other attitudes in the society. The snow-on-the-mountain could represent Mrs Dubose's status in the community with the single one Jem receives after her death being a symbol of reconciliation as well as the freeing of her spirit through death. Azaleas, on the other hand, are a type of rhododendron famous for growing in adverse conditions. They are also known for opening their flowers all at once, possibly symbolising openness and fearlessness, like Miss Maudie who grows them. Geraniums, which tend to smell like cats, are a poor substitute for roses. Mayella Ewell manages to keep them growing in ‘six chipped‐enamel slop jars’ - an American term for a chamberpot. They are a symbol of Mayella’s desperation and tragic entrapment in a deprived and dark-hearted family.

Tim Johnson the rabid dog is commonly supposed to represent the racism which is rampant in the Southern community of the novel, which spreads like a contagion and which promotes irrationality. Atticus, by shooting it, thus symbolically sets himself up in opposition to that racism.

Any object, person, thing, living or not, can remind us of something else, either in the context of a novel or in life. If there is textual evidence to back up a connection that can be made, or if there is contextual evidence, then that connection can be said to have validity. What’s the difference between textual and contextual? For the first, we look inside the novel only, at its words and its characters and themes and so on; for the second, we look outside the book at the society and the ideas which were around at the time when the book was written, including other contemporary books. The first (according to famous Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye) is a centripetal movement, looking inward; the second is a centrifugal movement, heading outward. We’ve looked centripetally at the symbols above; we can look out at the time in which the novel was being put together for evidence of the effects of a civil rights movement which wasn’t there at the time the novel is set but was active while it was being written.

Sometimes, symbols are so powerful that they bridge both motions. As Judge Taylor gives his verdict on Tom Robinson, Scout drifts into a kind of dream world, in which she sees something ‘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’. The dog becomes a symbol of the racism rife outside and inside the novel, though the reference in Scout’s mind is to something within the novel.

From the book How Stories Really Work, we also know that Atticus is more than Scout’s father - he is the figure of the ‘old man with a stick’ common to almost every successful story, his stick being the rifle, symbol of his power. But Atticus’ ‘stick’ fails to slay the monster of society’s attitudes as easily as his rifle shot the dog, shifting the whole story into a different genre of tale entirely.

Heck Tate’s criticism of Atticus’s shooting ‐ ‘You were a little to the right’ ‐ when put into this heavily symbolic framework, is burdened with layers of meaning: ‘to the right’ in moral terms, ‘to the right’ in terms of political views, or just slightly off target, as Atticus is slightly off target in his address to the jury in the trial.

How can we know the ‘correct’ meaning? The truth is that there is no ‘correct’ interpretation: there are as many symbolic interlinkings as there are viewpoints to suggest or create them. They are convincing if there is evidence to support them, and delusory in the exact degree to which evidence, textual or contextual, fades away.

For example, the suggestion that Atticus represents the effect of illegal drugs in the novel lacks any kind of credible evidence, centripetally or centrifugally, while the suggestion that there is something resonant about the action of stabbing in the novel can be supported: Boo Radley gets locked up for an apparently random and unprompted stabbing of his father’s leg with a pair of scissors -he is shut away from society and is not seen except for a brief reappearance at the end of the story. But in that reappearance, he stabs again, this time as an act of heroism, in defence of helpless children, and this time society - in the form of Maycombe’s sheriff - knowingly lets him off and permits him to remain free. That’s clear textual evidence that Lee meant the first stabbing to foreshadow the second, whether consciously or not, and that there is a symmetry in the actions. What it means about the power of the state versus individuals, the justice system, the meaning of families and heroism, can all be left to later readings or other readers - but can all be perfectly valid if there is evidence to support it.

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