Use of the Mockingbird Motif in To Kill a Mockingbird


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How Harper Lee uses the Mockingbird motif

"To Kill A Mockingbird" has a main theme of prejudice and the
persecution of innocent and harmless individuals. The main themes of
this book very much link in with the title, which is explained by
Harper Lee through Atticus and Miss Maudie (pg 96.) Miss Maudie
explains - "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to
enjoy. They don't one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's
why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. This is the first obvious
reference to the title of the book and the mockingbird motif. The
message Harper Lee is trying to convey through Miss Maudie is that
it's wrong to kill a mockingbird because they never do anything to
harm anything or anyone, and it really is a sin to harm something that
has never committed a crime or hurt anyone. I think Harper Lee intends
the reader to apply this to people as well. The mockingbird represents
the innocent people in the book who have never done anything wrong but
are persecuted just for being different (the two main examples being
Tom Robinson for being black and "Boo" Radley for living in solitude.)

We see this prejudice through the eyes of an innocent child who is
seeing it all for the first time. This is crucial to the reader's
perception and understanding of what is going on in the book, as the
child has not yet been corrupted by the prejudice and is seeing
everything for what it really is. At the beginning of the book the
children are all quite naïve and guileless, but as the book progresses
we see them growing up and learning about the world and the people
around them. I think they learn three main lessons by the end of the
book. The first is that people (and in particular, the people in
Maycomb) do not all have the same ideals as them, or as Atticus - for
instance they learn that many of the people of Maycomb are prejudiced
and hypocritical (even the cream of Maycomb society, who discuss the
help they must give to poor, persecuted black people outside Maycomb,
only to go on to make thoroughly unsavoury comments about the black
people living right under their noses - see page 236-240.) The second
is empathy, to walk around in someone else's shoes and see things from
their perspective - the lesson that their father seems most keen that
they learn. Scout has only fully learnt this lesson at the end of the
book, page 285, when she says, "Atticus was right.

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One time he said
you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk
around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough." The
"Boo Radley episode" has finally taught her to see things from someone
else's point of view. The other main lesson the children learn is, of
course, that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Harper Lee really wants to emphasise the mockingbird motif, and brings
it into the book as frequently as possible. There are many
mockingbirds: Walter Cunningham, Mrs Dubose, the roly-poly that Scout
wants to squash, Helen Robinson to name a few. For instance, Walter
Cunningham is persecuted (often not deliberately but through ignorance
of his situation, such as when Miss Caroline embarrasses him by trying
to lend him money he cannot return) because he lives in poverty,
although he does no harm to anyone. Mrs Dubose has a sharp tongue but
this is probably partly caused by the pain she is going through and is
just the way she is. Underneath she is a good person, but she is
persecuted for being old and irritable which she cannot really help.
Jem attacks her flowers; she is powerless to do anything but try to
break him down verbally. Atticus tries to explain all this to Jem, but
at this stage Jem is very far from being grown up and doesn't truly
understand. The roly-poly is a small, harmless creature, which Scout
is going to kill needlessly, until Jem stops her by saying it's wrong
because it's never done anything to hurt her. Helen Robinson is
helpless and harmless and has probably never done a thing to hurt a
soul in her entire life. But she is destroyed by those who caused
Tom's death, which should never have occurred - he was an innocent
man. Harper Lee writes many mockingbirds into her book because this is
the main theme, the main point she is trying to get across to her
readers. She begins with the title and then brings it into the book as
frequently as she can to emphasise her point, and so it is the most
repeatedly recurring theme.

Then there are the two main mockingbirds, Tom and Boo Radley.

Tom Robinson suffers the greatest of injustices. He is, in essence,
killed simply because he is black. He is the ultimate embodiment of
the mockingbird theme. He is found guilty of raping Mayella although
it is clear to us, the reader, that he is innocent of this crime. It
is so evident that he is innocent that we know the jury must know it
too; besides juries are bound to pronounce the defendant guilty if
there is a single iota of doubt, even the faintest shadow, and Tom's
case is brought to court on purely circumstantial evidence and
continues to be based on no more than this. It is plain to the reader
that Tom is a good, compassionate man, who helped Mayella with her
chores out of the goodness of his heart. Even so he is persecuted by
white people, just for being different to them, for being a black man
who had the audacity to pity a young white woman. That was the
attitude the jury and people in the courtroom had, the attitude Mr
Gilmer had - that it was pure impudence for Tom to help Mayella out of
pity. He wasn't allowed to pity her because she was supposedly above
him, just because she was white - that is what it boils down to. The
author can see how wrong this is, or the book would never have been
written. We can see how wrong this is. But the sad thing is that many
people couldn't see how wrong it was. The sad thing is that there were
many, many people who were not like Atticus, or Scout, or Miss Maudie
in their attitudes but more like Mrs Merriweather and the other
hypocritical and prejudiced characters living in Maycomb - and
probably still are, though far fewer. One of the reasons Harper Lee
cared so much about getting this message across was probably because
she saw the great injustice and wanted other people to see it too and
see how wrong it was so that someday these injustices would stop
taking place. Tom, an innocent man, ends up dead for a crime he never
committed, and it is said that he was a dead man as soon as Mayella
screamed. I believe that this is true - as soon as a young white woman
decided that she was going to pin a crime in a black man his sentence
was a foregone conclusion - guilty, whether he was or not. It is not
fair, but it's true. Tom was a mockingbird, victimized despite his
innocence, and the act was a sin.

Boo Radley, or Arthur Radley, was persecuted for being different also.


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