Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird
Length: 1825 words (5.2 double-spaced pages)
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Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is an astounding portrayal of Southern tradition and human dignity, a novel whose themes and lessons transcend time and place. The book is narrated by a young girl named Scout who matures over the course of the story from an innocent child to a morally conscience young adult. The cover of the novel displays a knot-holed tree containing a pocket watch and a ball of yarn, accompanied by the silhouette of a mockingbird soaring over the trees through a twilight sky. The portrait on the cover is an emblem that signifies the nature of Scout's maturation and the underlying themes presented by Harper Lee. Lee's signified themes, ethically rich and profoundly humane, epitomize traditional Southern mentality.
The story commences during the summer in Maycomb County, Alabama, in a children's world. Scout is a young girl around the age of ten and her older brother Jem is about thirteen. Their summer days consist of playing make believe, fictional games from dawn until dusk with their friend, Dill, from Montgomery, Alabama. In the child's world, the twilight sky represents the rising sun, the dawn of a new day, and the commencement of a full day of children's games and activities. The child's world that exists during the daytime is a world flourishing with innocence and simplicity. However, the daytime is the only time when the child's world exists, for when the sun falls, curfews draw Scout, Jem, and Dill back to their homes for the evening. When daylight fades and the moon begins to rise, the games subside and the make believe, fictional world ceases to exist until following morning. The twilight sky portrayed on the cover represents a rising sun, and thus, the inconsequential child's world.
The knot-holed tree housing the pocket watch and the ball of yarn portrayed on the cover is another signifier for the child's world. The tree is on the edge of the Radley property and the pocket watch and ball of yarn within it were placed there by Boo Radley. Boo is an instrumental character to the make believe child's world because of the great ambiguity and elusiveness that he represents. Neither Scout, Jem nor Dill has ever seen Boo Radley; all they know about him are the stories they have heard from Miss Stephanie Crawford, their neighbor and potentially reliable source.
The Radley house remains tightly closed with its owners inside, which creates great mystery among the children. The mystery and ambiguity that Boo creates among Jem, Scout, and Dill compels them to create a new, make believe game called the Boo Radley game, based on their fictitious knowledge. The Boo Radley game consists of the children acting out the stories they have heard from Miss Stephanie on the Finch's lawn. This game is significant because it clearly represents the make believe child's world, which is based on rumors and fabrications; a world where their are virtually no consequences for the children's actions.
The children's world represented by theses signifiers is one where Scout's character represents innocence and purity. She is young, impression-able, and simple, and sees the world through unbiased lenses. She cannot yet, as Atticus tells her, see the world from other people's perspectives, but only from her own candid eyes. Atticus, the epitome of human dignity throughout the novel, stresses the importance of understanding other people to Scout. The significance of Scout's honesty and impartiality can clearly be seen the night she sneaks out of the house with Jem to find Atticus. The children find their father outside the county jail house guarding the black man inside from a lynching mob who came to hang him. Scout enters the group during a confrontation between Atticus and the mob. Scout, oblivious to the mob's intent, recognizes one of its members as her friend Walter's father, Mr. Cunningham. Scout attracts his attention and then asks Mr. Cunningham to say hello to his son for her. Scout's presence in the group and her harmless conversation with Mr. Cunnigham represent pure innocence and kindness of heart. Scout's connection with Mr. Cunningham brings him back to a moral, dignified state of mind where ethics and relationships have meaningful value. This noble connection influences Mr. Cunningham to act morally. He then gathers his men and leaves the jail, thus ending their barbarous mission. The triumphant unfolding signifies Scout's innocence and purity and, quite significantly, the initiation of her transition into the adult world.
The twilight sky portrayed on the cover can also represent the rising moon and the fall of night, and thus, the adult world. It is during the time from dusk to dawn that Scout's transition from the child's world to the adult's world emerges. The beginning of her transition is marked by the episode at the jail house and then augmented by the fire at Miss Maudie's house. Neither of these events are fictitious nor are they make believe, as are the events in the children's world. Rather, they involve adult violence and adult consequences. The yard no longer serves as a stage for the unfolding of fictitious plots or the Boo Radley game. The yard is now a place of real, adult drama; a place for Jem and Scout to stand shivering, scared, and exposed to Miss Maudie's house fire and thus, the real adult world. Her transition materializes at the fire when Scout, shivering and scared, realizes she has been covered with a blanket by Boo Radley. As Scout stood shivering on the lawn watching the fire, Boo came out of his house into the adult world to cover her up and protect her from the cold; a single moment that could have virtually shattered Scout's child world, fabricated by fiction and imagination. However, as Scout stood watching the fire, she was so enthralled by the adult world, that for a short time, she forgot all about the children's world, and thus Boo Radley. This event is so significant because the presence of Boo Radley, a character instrumental to the child's world, went undetected by Scout as her attention was fully focused on the adult world. And thus, her transition becomes reality.
The trial of Tom Robinson and his unjustified conviction was an eye opener for Scout to the prejudices and unfairness of the adult world. Atticus, Scout, Jem, and several other members of Maycomb county knew Tom Robinson should not be convicted. However, the trial takes place in Maycomb County, Alabama. Tom Robinson is a black man, and as Atticus realistically stated, was dead the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth. The discrimination and prejudices are unintelligible to Scout, who learned not to be biased, but rather was taught equality by her virtuous father Atticus. In her adult world, Scout learns to treat all people fairly with dignity and respect.
A few weeks after the trial, again during the dark of night, Scout's presence in the adult world culminates. She and her brother Jem are walking home from their performance at their elementary school when the very real violence of the adult world is forced upon them by Mr. Ewell. He viciously attacks both children to seize revenge on Atticus for destroying his credibility and stature in Maycomb County. Both children escape, however, Jem's arm is broken at the elbow. Moments later back in the house, Atticus, Scout, Dr. Reynolds, Mr. Tate, and Boo Radley learn that Mr. Ewell "fell" on his knife and lost his life. In a flash of the night, Scout experiences the most severe form of violence that exists in the adult world. She also comes face to face with the mysterious Boo Radley, thus marking the end of her transition from the child's world, comprised of harmless, fictitious games, to the adult world. Boo Radley is no longer a mystery to Scout and the games around her are no longer inconsequential.
When everyone is gathered back at the Finch's following the encounter with Bob Ewell, Scout leads Boo in to see Jem as he rested on his bed. Boo examines Jem, signifying his first encounter with the character instrumental to the child's world, then turns and asks Scout to walk him home. As they head towards the Radley place, Scout places her arm around Boo's and proceeds to walk him home. They arrive on the porch and Boo steps inside his house leaving Scout alone outside. Scout turns to leave, but then pauses to observe her surroundings from the new, unknown point of view off Boo's porch. As Scout glances around the neighborhood, she realizes that she is experiencing a new perspective, one that Boo has experienced all his life. At this point, Scout realizes what it means to put herself in someone else's shoes and to understand a different perspective.
The knot-holed tree housing the pocket watch and the ball of yarn on the cover not only represent Scout's presence in the child's world, but also her presence in the adult world. As Scout peers off the porch and looks around the neighborhood, she reflects on the nature of neighborly relations, and specifically her relationship with Boo. Scout realizes that Boo is her neighbor and that Boo gave Jem and her two soap dolls, chewing gum, a broken watch chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and their lives, yet they had offered nothing in return. Their negligence makes Scout very sad and reveals a far more complex thought processes than she displayed earlier in the novel. She exhibits compassion and dignity for the people around her, and understands her responsibility to reciprocate kindness as a human being. At this point, Scout clearly moves into the adult world, represented by her acknowledgment of Boo's perspective, and thus her own new, liberal perspective. As Scout walks home from Boo's house, her new perspective and place in the new world materializes in her own mind. She thinks to herself that she and Jem will grow up one day, but then realizes there is not much else for them to learn, except possibly algebra. She demonstrates a complex thought process and an understanding of human dignity and ethical behavior, the most important distinctions of traditional Southern mentality.
Hence, the cover of the novel is an emblem which portays the signifiers for Scout's development over the course of the story and her transition from the child world to the adult world. The twilight sky represents both the rising and the setting sun and thus the child world and the adult world. The knot-holed tree containing Boo's gifts signifies Scout's two different perspectives and also marks her transition. The soaring mockingbird represents the underlying purity and kindheartedness that Harper Lee attempts to instill throughout the novel. Atticus is the epitome of these qualities which signify the dignity, spirit, and morality of man. To kill a mockingbird is in essence to eradicate free spirit and destroy pure joy, which is the greatest sin of all.