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