Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill A Mockingbird is simply iconic. It is known for its ability to portray innocence interpreting the depths of racism. It is also known for its theme of appearance vs. reality. With a 9 year old narrator living in the 1930’s in a small southern town, readers would think this would be a fairly easy read. However, the amount of symbolism and imagery in this story makes the reader take a second look into the life of the small town. The symbolism in To Kill A Mockingbird helps the reader understand the naivety of the narrator, and also helps them realize that they must look from a different perspective to fully grasp the idea of symbols. This is important to the experience of the reader because it shows them how to see multiple outlooks of various characters in the story.
Symbolism is used everyday in all media. It is the use of a relatable or popular topic, comparing it to what a story is trying to portray, and letting a subject or audience interpret it. It appears on almost every page in To Kill A Mockingbird, because the narrator, Scout, is 9 years old and cannot comprehend some of the racist attitudes going around in her town. The reader becomes immersed in her mind because they see through her eyes. Atticus, her father, is the main source of symbolism for her in the story. He explains much of what she does not understand to her and gives her many life lessons she can use throughout the book. One lesson he gives her is, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” When she did not understand this she asked her neighbor what it meant. Her neighbor explained, “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." Anyone would interpret this as do not kill a certain type of bird with a slingshot, but it is a key example of symbolism in the book. As the reader begins to see certain racially biased events unfold in the town, they understand that innocent people are being harmed and wronged. They slowly make the realization, with the help of Scout, that these innocent people are “mockingbirds” and that to be a mockingbird means that someone does no harm to anyone but it punished anyway. In order to grasp this ideal, they must look from a different perspective.
The naivety of Scout helps the reader to step outside of their own minds, and jump into a younger one. However it can hinder their ability to decipher what some symbolic effects really stand for. Thomas DiPiero, an English professor at the University of Rochester stated, “The challenge in reading this great American novel is not to be beguiled by its form. Remember that it’s precisely when you think you’ve understood others’ perspectives that you must recall you are not in their skin.” DiPiero is expressing that once the reader thinks they understand something in the story, they need to take a step back and look at it from another character's point of view. They must think, “Is this really what I think it is, or am I just not seeing the big picture?” The “big picture” includes all of the characters in To Kill A Mockingbird. Many readers find themselves just looking at Scout’s small corner. They must take a step back, analyze the situation, and look from every character’s experience and perspective in it.
One example of symbolism within the story is explained in this small passage, “Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping. He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children.” This example shows one perspective from a character explaining another’s death. Mr. Underwood likened the murder of a cripple to the killing of a mockingbird. Again, the reader must look from his perspective, as well as others. They must ask themselves why was the cripple was murdered? Did they do something wrong? And even if they did they were defenseless and could not protect themselves. They need to measure the situation not just from Underwood’s description, but from their own as well.
One example of perceptiveness is how Scout interprets this passage. Scout was listening to her brother describe someone he had never seen before. “Jem gave a reasonable description of Boo: Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that's why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.” The reader can interpret this in two different ways. Jem is being completely serious, or he is messing with his sister. This is also an example of symbolism as Jem has never met Boo. Jem is judging Boo when he could just be another innocent mockingbird. However many people make assumptions based on the fact that Boo is never seen outside. This is another situation where the reader must think about the entire setting and where certain characters stand in it.
Overall To Kill A Mockingbird is all about perspective. The perspective of the reader, narrator, and all characters in the story. When the reader is interpreting a passage that involves symbolism they must look at the entirety to decipher it. The symbolism in To Kill A Mockingbird helps the reader realize that they must look from a different perspective to fully grasp the idea of symbols.