- Through the Course of the Novel the Children Learn the Importance of Protecting ‘Mockingbirds’
Harper Lee had, originally intended to call the book Atticus but decided to rename it because the themes went beyond a mere portrait of the man. The concept of a mockingbird is introduced by Atticus when he tells his children that it is a ‘sin to shoot a mockingbird’. This is the only time the children have ever heard their father refer to something as a sin and, confused, they ask their neighbor what he means. She tells them that Mockingbirds cause no one any harm – providing only pleasure. As such they represent all that is good and innocent and all that it is a sin to destroy.
There are several human ‘mockingbirds’ in the book the key two being Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Tom Robinson, a black man accused of a rape he did not (could not) commit by a girl who made advances and subsequently blamed him to protect her reputation is protected by Atticus to the very best of his ability but is hounded by a lynch mob and subsequently killed very violently while trying to escape prison. Mr. Robinson says this killing is no different to the ‘slaughter of songbirds’.
Boo Radley is a recluse, kept away from society and turned into a bogeyman by the children. He watches over them, silently, for many years. He comes out of his house to save them and kills Bob Ewell in the process. When Atticus and the Sherriff discuss the death the Sherriff protects Boo Radley from exposure saying Bob Ewell fell on his own knife – the Sherriff knows that exposing Boo Radley to publicity would damage him, he protects the mockingbird.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is, Fundamentally, a Story About the Loss of Innocence
The first part of the book is very distinct from the second half, a commentary on life in a small town and the personalities the children encounter. The reader understands that the town is racist but the children have place in it. The second half of the book focusses on the trial and the town’s reactions to it. The children learn to accept the consequences of standing by their beliefs as they see their father face being ostracized for doing what he believes is the right thing. After the trial the children struggle with coming to terms with their new view of their neighbors – Jem describes it as being like ‘a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon… I always thought Maycomb folks were the best in the world’.
The children play near the Boo Radley house. In the first half of the book he is the bogeyman – they are scared of him but dare each other to get close. When things come to an end at the climax of the book it is their childhood bogeyman, Boo Radley, who saves them from the real life danger of Bob Ewell. The children realize that Boo Radley has been watching them play, leaving gifts for them and, in the end, taking care of them. Their loss of innocence is complete as they learn that the fictional monsters of childhood pale into insignificance when compared to the real evil in the world. Scout walks Boo Radley home at the end of the novel and, seeing him for the last time, realizes that she can see the world from his perspective – she finally learns the lesson that Atticus has been trying to teach her – you never know a man until you walk in his shoes.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a rich book of complex themes told through a child’s innocent eyes. It can be read on a number of levels – as a coming of age story, as a commentary on racist attitudes in the Southern States, as court room drama. It is all these things and more, it shows us the inevitability of loss of innocence and the importance of courage despite overwhelming odds. It is for these reasons that this much loved book has never been out of print.