Use of Symbols and Symbolism in To Kill A Mockingbird

Use of Symbols and Symbolism in To Kill A Mockingbird

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Use of Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird  


Harper Lee effectively uses symbolism throughout her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Jem's nursing of the flowers denotes his courage that he nurses in order to be able to tolerate people's criticism of his family, especially of his father. He was forced to take care of the camellias just as he was forced to live with anger, disappointment and a big question mark in his young heart about the workings of grownups. Atticus "never thought Jem'd be the one to lose his head over this" (110). However Jem did 'lose his head' and now he has to find the strength to control his emotions in order to avoid further trouble. This courage was hard to find but Mrs Dubose did find it and managed to break herself from morphine before she died. She also made sure Jem got a white waxy camellia she had prepared for him. The waxy camellia, the "Snow-on-the-Mountain" (118), could be a symbol of courage. She built her spirit little by little just as when she was making the camellia. Now it is Jem's turn to build his own. And as the camellia out of wax does not wither, in the same sense, true courage may be hard to build, but once built, it never leaves you.

            Mrs Dubose's camellias are not the only flowers that can be seen symbolically. Mayella Ewell's red geraniums also carry an important meaning. During the Robinson trial the reader is given a description of the Ewell's property. It is said that "what passed for a fence was bits of tree-limbs , broomsticks and tool shafts, all tipped with rusty hammer-heads, snaggle-toothed rake heads, shovels, axes and grubbing hoes, held on with pieces of barbed wire. Enclosed by this barricade was a dirty yard containing the remains of a Model-T Ford, a discarded dentist's chair, an ancient ice-box, plus lesser items: old shoes, worn-out table radios, picture frames, and fruit jars, under which scrawny orange chickens pecked hopefully". (176) The general picture one acquires by this description is that of a small dump, a place totally disordered like the "playhouse of an insane child" (176). One can easily guess the rank of the people who lived there. However, "against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson.

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People said they were Mayella Ewell's" (176-7). In a decaying house, Mayella's geraniums seem out of place. They would belong better in Miss Maudie's yard, since such flowers need to be taken care of with love, which did not appear to flow in the Ewell family. Nevertheless, they were there so they cannot be ignored. Therefore, the red geraniums could symbolise the good that exists in everybody; no matter how corrupted one may be, the predisposition to good still exists. In the novel it is Atticus who tries to convince his children that this assertion is valid. The day after Scout made the mob which attempted to lynch Tom Robinson to depart, Atticus says that "Mr Cunningham's basically a good man, he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us. So it took an eight-year-old child to bring'em to their senses, didn't it? That proves something - that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they're still human" (163). According to Atticus, it is enough to be human in order to know the difference between good and evil and decide which one is best. Most people have 'blind spots' which do not allow them to see clearly sometimes, but this does not necessarily mean that they are totally mean. Like the red geraniums which offer their beauty in the middle of a dump, so does good lies in the heart and mind of every human being. The geraniums could also symbolise good human beings like Atticus who can be found everywhere, even in the midst of a corrupt society.

            The fire and Mrs Dubose's white camellias are not the only symbols of prejudice. Tim Johnson is another symbol of prejudice and his shooting by Atticus is also highly allegorical. Jem and Scout did not know their father was such a good shooter and they were very surprised to see him shooting: "With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus's hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder. The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumbled on the sidewalk in a brown-and-white heap. He didn't know what hit him" (102). Tim Johnson represents prejudice, and how, like a rabid dog , it spreads its disease throughout the town. Atticus Finch is seen as a hero for he kills racism and prejudice, not allowing it to spread any further. In a conversation with his brother Jack about the coming trial and how to "get Jem and Scout through it without bitterness, and most of all, without catching Maycomb's usual disease" (94), Atticus is the one who refers to people's prejudice as a 'disease'. He accepts the Robinson case in an effort to fight against that, even though he is sure to fail.

            Symbolism is indeed used extensively in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The symbolism reveals the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of the citizens of Maycomb County, their fears and the immoral things they did. It also reveals an attempt to purify people from these feelings, by a hero figure, a model to the community, Atticus Finch, as well as his two children, who surely follow in his footsteps. The story ends with the reading of a book by Atticus, The Grey Ghost, another symbol perhaps for Boo Radley whose "face was as white as his hands and his grey eyes were so colourless" (276), a description fitting to one of a ghost. Before she falls asleep Scout describes the story which happens to be about someone falsely accused of doing something he never did, exactly like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, the two mockingbirds of the story so wrongly treated by others. The closing of the novel with another symbol for the two victims of human malice suggests the power Harper Lee sees in symbolism, which carries the message better than words. At this point she seems to agree with J.B.S. Haldane, a British Scientist, who stated: "In fact, words are well adapted for description and the arousing of emotion, but for many kinds of precise thought other symbols are much better" (Columbia). Perhaps this is the reason Harper Lee chooses to declare her rejection of prejudice and racism through the use of symbols; because they are more effective than words.
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