The Symbolism of Mockingbirds in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Categories: To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a seminal work in American literature that delves deep into issues of prejudice, racism, and the moral conscience of society. Set against the backdrop of the 1930s Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, the novel explores the pervasive racial biases that permeate the town. While the story's central theme revolves around the challenges of combating racism, the symbolism of the mockingbird emerges as a powerful motif that encapsulates the novel's core message.

The Mockingbird as a Symbol of Innocence

The novel begins with the wisdom of Miss Maudie, who declares, "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 make music for us to enjoy. That's why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird" (90). This poignant statement lays the foundation for the overarching symbolism of the mockingbird throughout the narrative. The mockingbird, in its purest form, represents innocence and harmlessness.

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Atticus Finch, the novel's moral compass, upholds the idea that it is a sin to harm or kill something that brings joy without causing harm. He extends this notion to the treatment of individuals in society, emphasizing the importance of protecting innocence, especially when confronted with prejudice and injustice. In the racially charged atmosphere of Maycomb, innocence takes on a particular significance, as it is often trampled upon and ignored.

Tom Robinson as the Exemplar of a Mockingbird

Among the novel's characters, Tom Robinson emerges as the quintessential mockingbird figure.

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He is a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewells, a white woman. Despite his obvious innocence, Tom faces a society that is quick to condemn him based solely on the color of his skin. In this context, Tom represents the innocent mockingbird, doing no harm but suffering unjustly at the hands of prejudice and ignorance.

Calpurnia, the Finch family's housekeeper, affirms Tom's upstanding character, stating, "She (Calpurnia) says they're clean-living folks" (75). This assertion aligns with the theme of innocence attributed to mockingbirds. Tom is a respected member of his black community, known for his honesty, church attendance, and dedication to his family. Atticus, defending Tom, emphasizes that Tom's innocence should be safeguarded, much like a mockingbird's well-being.

On the contrary, the Ewells, who accuse Tom of wrongdoing, are depicted as the antithesis of innocence. Scout, Atticus's daughter, remarks, "Atticus said the Ewells had been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations. None of them had done an honest day's work in his recollection" (30). This sharp contrast between Tom Robinson and the Ewells reinforces the notion that Tom is the true embodiment of a mockingbird.

Tom Robinson's Voice: Ignored and Silenced

In a society riddled with racial prejudice, Tom Robinson's voice, like that of a mockingbird's song, goes unheard and unappreciated. During the 1930s, a period marked by deep-seated racism, white individuals often exhibited an unwillingness to acknowledge the validity of other cultures and races. This societal bias is reflected in the novel as Tom's pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears.

Atticus, in a poignant moment, remarks, "…you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings" (217). Atticus's words highlight the pernicious effects of baseless assumptions, which hinder individuals from perceiving the truth with an open mind. Tom Robinson's voice, representing the voice of marginalized communities, is consistently disregarded throughout the narrative.

Atticus further laments the racial bias in the justice system, stating, "In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins" (220). This statement underscores the systemic prejudice faced by African Americans during that era. Tom's voice, though genuine and truthful, is consistently undermined by the white majority, mirroring how a mockingbird's song is often overlooked by hunters and children.

Tom Robinson's Tragic End

Tom Robinson's fate in the novel tragically parallels the destiny of a mockingbird shot by hunters. Despite his innocence, he is wrongly convicted, and his life is unjustly taken from him. The senseless nature of his death is epitomized by the fact that he is shot seventeen times, signifying the excessive and unnecessary violence that he endures. This brutal end serves as a chilling commentary on the abuse of authority and the willingness of those in power to maintain racial hierarchies.

After Tom Robinson's death, Mr. Underwood, the editor of the Maycomb Tribune, draws a poignant parallel between Tom's fate and the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children. This comparison underscores the theme that the gentle and virtuous are often unjustly persecuted and destroyed by the ignorant. Tom Robinson's life, much like that of a mockingbird, is tragically cut short due to society's failure to recognize his innocence.

In a desperate attempt to regain his freedom, Tom Robinson attempts to escape from prison. This scene is symbolic of a black man pursuing the fleeting promise of liberty, akin to a mockingbird breaking free from its cage and soaring into the sky, only to be shot down by men. Tom's decision to flee reflects the inherent dangers of his situation and the absence of hope for justice. The people of Maycomb remain oblivious to their unfair treatment of Tom Robinson, echoing the tragedy of a mockingbird being killed without understanding its song.

The Wider Symbolism of Mockingbirds

While Tom Robinson serves as the primary mockingbird figure in the novel, the symbolism of the mockingbird extends beyond him to encompass the entire black community in 1930s Maycomb. African Americans living in this racially segregated society are consistently oppressed by discrimination and face the constant threat of unjust incarceration or violence, much like mockingbirds being shot by hunters.

Harper Lee, despite the controversial nature of addressing racism head-on, delivers a universal message to readers worldwide: it is the gravest sin of society to kill a mockingbird. The mockingbird, with its innocent song that brings joy, is a potent symbol for all those whose voices are silenced, whose innocence is disregarded, and who suffer under the weight of prejudice and injustice.


"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee masterfully employs the symbolism of mockingbirds to convey its profound message about the value of innocence and the consequences of racial prejudice. Tom Robinson, an innocent black man wrongly accused and persecuted, embodies the mockingbird figure, as his voice goes unheard and his life is tragically cut short. Through Tom's story, Lee highlights the broader oppression faced by the African American community in 1930s Maycomb.

The novel serves as a stark reminder of the societal injustices of the past and a call to recognize the importance of preserving innocence and protecting those who are marginalized. Just as it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is a sin to harm the innocent and perpetuate prejudice.

In today's world, the themes explored in "To Kill a Mockingbird" remain relevant as society continues to grapple with issues of racism, discrimination, and the quest for justice. Harper Lee's work continues to resonate as a timeless masterpiece, shedding light on the historical struggles of marginalized communities and the importance of breaking free from oppressive societal norms.

Updated: Nov 13, 2023
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The Symbolism of Mockingbirds in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". (2016, Jul 05). Retrieved from

The Symbolism of Mockingbirds in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" essay
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