To Kill a Mockingbird

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The Mockingbird Symbol Analysis

The Mockingbird Symbol Icon
Atticus tells Jem and Scout that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds cause no harm to anyone; they just sing. Because of these traits, mockingbirds in To Kill a Mockingbird symbolize innocence and beauty. And killing a mockingbird is therefore an act of senseless cruelty. There are a number of characters who can be seen as mockingbirds in the text, most particularly Tom Robinson and Boo Radley.

The Mockingbird Quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird

The To Kill a Mockingbird quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Mockingbird. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Warner Books edition of To Kill a Mockingbird published in 1960.
Chapter 10 Quotes
"Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
"Your father's right," she said. "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 sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker), Miss Maudie Atkinson (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mockingbird
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

The air rifles that Atticus gives Scout and Jem for Christmas come with a warning: never to kill a mockingbird. Scout rightly notices how rare Atticus's strong language here is. Usually, when she tries to make a judgment or condemn someone or something, Atticus immediately tries to draw her back, to help her to understand where the person is coming from, and to gain a more nuanced view of the situation. 

Miss Maudie, who usually has just as subtle an understand of human actions as Atticus, is nonetheless is in agreement with him on this exception. The moral world of To Kill a Mockingbird is far from simple, but there are rare elements in it that are, in fact, purely simple. Miss Maudie is obviously describing real, physical mockingbirds in this passage, but her description also holds for human beings – people who are endlessly generous, who give rather than take, such that they deserve only appreciation and care. It will be Scout's task to attempt to apply the lesson from Miss Maudie and from Atticus to the people around her, as she develops a more advanced understanding of how good and evil interact in the world.


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Chapter 25 Quotes
[Jem] was certainly never cruel to animals, but I had never known his charity to embrace the insect world.

"Why couldn't I mash him?" I asked.

"Because they don't bother you," Jem answered in the darkness. He had turned out his reading light.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem) (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mockingbird
Page Number: 320
Explanation and Analysis:

Scout has been poking at a roly-poly bug, preparing to smash it, but Jem has stopped her. She pays attention to him because he's her older brother, but she's also confused as to why he has forbidden her this game. However, by the end of the passage Scout (as well as we readers) should recognize the parallel that Jem is making. He is expanding the definition of "mockingbird" to include any living creature that cannot defend itself, that should be protected rather than destroyed. By only applying the lesson of the mockingbird to some things – people rather than animals, for instance – the significance and power of this attitude is lost.

Once again, as Jem and Scout both grow up over the course of the story, in some ways Jem leads Scout. Several years older than her, he must grapple with the lessons about good, evil, and how to treat other people on his own, even as his sister slowly comes to understand what he does as well.

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The Mockingbird Symbol Timeline in To Kill a Mockingbird

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Mockingbird appears in To Kill a Mockingbird. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 10
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
...he didn't teach them how to shoot, instead only telling them not to shoot at mockingbirds, since it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. Miss Atkinson explains: all mockingbirds do is... (full context)
Chapter 25
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Courage Theme Icon
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon
...Underwood publishes an editorial in his newspaper comparing Tom's death to the "senseless slaughter of songbirds." (full context)