Unlike most books, the title of Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, has very little literal connection to the main plot itself, but carries a great symbolic weight in the book. We first start to realize the figurative meaning of the ‘mockingbird’ in chapter 10 when Atticus told Jem to “shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” and also said that “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy…That’s why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.” From these two statements, we can infer that mockingbirds symbolizes innocence and harmlessness, both of these traits can be seen in Tom Robinson and Boo Radley in the novel.
Tom Robinson, as we know from the novel, is a kind person who is often willing to help others in need. In fact, he was “probably the only person who was ever decent to her.” During his testimony, he also revealed how he has helped Mayella Ewell out with her chores countless times, not because she is a white but because of his innate helpful nature, despite his injured left arm. He resisted kissing Mayella because of the simple fact that she was a white girl and it was socially unacceptable for a Black man to kiss a White girl. Also, the fact that he did not push Mayella away as he advanced provocatively towards him but instead decided to run away in the middle of the situation, proving the point that he was a compassionate ‘mockingbird’ who never intended to harm any one, be it White or Black.
Unfortunately, he never stood to win the case despite overwhelming evidence because of the all-white jury and the majority of the Maycomb population who were racists and were prejudiced in favour of the Whites. This matter is made worse by the fact that the people of Maycomb are “afraid to that they might hurt someone’s feelings if they have to pass a judgment involving two townspeople.” In other words, they would rather have an easy way out by killing Tom Robinson than standing up for him and creating more problems. By killing an innocent Tom Robinson who was trying to escape from the confinements of prison, the people of Maycomb have unknowingly ‘killed a mockingbird’.
Boo Radley is the other significant ‘mockingbird’ in the novel. Although he only appeared physically once in the entire novel, he is an important character who slowly transformed from an enigma and the focal point of the children’s inquisitiveness to someone who heroically rescued Jem and Scout from the deranged Bob Ewell later in the story. In the beginning, he was subject to numerous rumours and was a common topic for the children’s conversations and games, as his name suggests that of a ghost. His house even got ‘invaded’ by the children who were desperate to find out more about his life. It was then no wonder that treated with such skepticism and prejudice, he preferred to be a recluse and stay indoors in solitude than to go outside and meet the same fate which Tom Robinson suffered. Like Tom, Boo Radley committed no crime but to love children, although it was quite clear that his family forbade him from doing so by cementing the hollow trunk after Jem and Scout put a thank you note in it.
It was unfortunate that the children only found out the true character of Boo Radley towards the end of the story after they were saved. Only then did Scout and Jem realized that Boo Radley was not hiding from children but constantly looking out for them, especially those in need. Similar to Tom Robinson and a mockingbird, it is greatly ironic that the Radleys’ house was invaded by the children because he looked out for children, just like Tom Robinson who was sentenced because he helped Mayella and a mockingbird who is shot because it sings for the people. Never did anyone knew that Boo Radley actually had more character than the average person of Maycomb who were racists and bigots who dared not stand up for someone of another race until then.
In conclusion, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are the two main mockingbirds who were innocent yet punished by the society. By deliberately choosing such an unusual title (at least to the average reader) and juxtaposing the two ‘mockingbirds’ (one Black and one White) together, Harper Lee perhaps is trying to tell us how justice and compassion reach beyond the boundaries of racism and prejudices. The greatest difference between these two ‘mockingbirds’ is of course that Tom Robinson got killed while Boo Radley was forced to kill.