Symbolism in the Novel, To Kill a Mockingbird

Katrina Andreassen

Keywords: Education, Symbolism, Prejudice, Civil Rights

To those who have an appreciation for literature, take a moment to look at the world, and truly pay attention, I guarantee you will notice how symbolism takes place in many different aspects of our everyday lives. Symbolism plays a largely significant role in many people’s lives through what they might see, do, read, or hear throughout the day. Furthermore, this subject is significant to myself because the idea of symbolism has been a topic that has piqued my interest for many years, mostly due to the symbolism that is present in literary works. Symbolism is often present in rhetoric and the art of literature since it allows the author and writer to open the readers’ mind into thinking about an idea and what it might stand for in a more complex aspect. For this paper, I argue that there are many significant examples of symbolism in the famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and how the symbolism of the title, culture, and identity is important in rhetoric due to the impact it has had on literary symbolism and storytelling. The examples of symbolism even start in the title of the novel where a mockingbird symbolizes innocence, and then carry on throughout the plot of the story, such as the multicultural differences, such as segregation and inequality, and the true ethical meaning that certain characters represent, including their identity, like Scout’s character representing a queer girl symbolized by her “tomboyishness.”

Innocence is a sacred virtue and can be symbolized beautifully in works of literature. To Kill a Mockingbird, does a great job in symbolizing innocence through the characters pathos and youth. The classic novel written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee, is a classic novel due to the important messages it exemplifies. For example, Harper Lee was able to construe a title that would symbolize the idea and plot of what her story was going to be primarily about, which is a little girl who learns important lessons about life as she matures throughout the novel. In the reading, On the Symbolic Significance of To Kill a Mockingbird, authors Liu Xi and Zhang Li-li state, “In this story, because innocents are destroyed by evil, the “mockingbird” comes to represent the idea of innocence. Thus, ‘to kill a mockingbird’ is to destroy innocence” (Xi and Li-li, 4). The importance of this symbolic aspect of the novel is significant as the title forces the readers to truly think about how the title relates to the plot and connect it from there. Instead of just mindlessly reading, the readers need to understand the rhetorical characteristics this story portrays. Innocence shapes the title of the novel, so the idea of killing this “mockingbird,” means they are tarnishing and putting an end to a young individual’s innocence through the reality of racial inequality present at that time. In addition to this, the mockingbird also symbolizes the idea of good and evil both existing at the same time in the world. It represents the morality of individuals in society and draws a line between the characteristics of good and evil. Xi and Li-li support this point by providing an example from the story in which characters Scout and Jen portray a childlike innocence to the idea of good in the world; however, as they grow older and recognize evil in people and society, they now understand that the world is not always a positive place (Xi and Li-li, 5). Innocence is shown when the character Scout mentions how she does not know what love is, and this proves her innocence by her lack of knowledge of this simple emotion. It is extremely heartbreaking.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, race plays a predominant role in the plot of the story. The characters in the novel symbolize multicultural differences present in society, such as racism,

segregation, and inequality. For example, authors Darryl Potyk, and Cicely W. White of the article, “Another Lesson from the Mockingbird: Institutional Racism in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird” state, “Most significantly and often overlooked is the fact that the falsely accused black man is found guilty and imprisoned. As a result of the wrongs heaped upon him, Tom is full of despair and attempts to escape from prison. As he does so, he is shot 17 times in the back” (Potyk and White, 1). In this story, Tom is used to symbolize the systemic racism that is sadly present in our society. In addition to race, ethical meaning and identity of the characters are also present symbols in the novel. For example, the character Atticus plays an important role in the symbolism of the ethical meaning behind his character. For instance, in the reading, On the Symbolic Significance of To Kill a Mockingbird, by, authors Liu Xi and Zhang Li-li, they state, “In the novel, Atticus represents morality and reason” (Xi and Li-li, 279). Atticus Finch plays a major role in the novel. He is a lawyer and a single father to characters Scout and Jem. Atticus Finch represents a father who is brave and honorable, but also considerably kind and confident. This is shown through his ability to be sure of his decisions. Regarding identity, this is symbolized through the young female character Scout. For example, in the reading, Mockingbird Passing: Closeted Traditions and Sexual Curiosities in Harper Lee’s Novel, author Holly Blackford mentions how it is believed that Scout’s “Tomboyishness” symbolizes her identity, which many believe is a queer girl (Blackford, 53). Scout is one to stray away from the common gender roles of the time, and that symbolizes who she really is.

On the contrary, those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird, may believe that it is a bad influence on young adults who may read it because it presents racial slurs and tells the story from a “white perspective.” I disagree with this claim because I strongly believe there is a firm message behind this story. The message that To Kill A Mockingbird gives is to treat everyone

with the respect and dignity one deserves. This story teaches empathy and to not be so judgmental. If one is going to be judged, it must be done solely on their own actions, and not on something that they cannot control.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a great work of literature that exemplifies rhetoric through the idea of symbolism. It forces the readers to think while they read, rather than just mindlessly flip through the pages of a story with no significant meaning and understanding. Overall, To Kill a Mockingbird is a historical piece of literature that holds great importance to the English rhetoric by providing symbolic attributes to the story, all the way from the title, to the culture, identity, and ethical meaning of the characters and the plot that author Harper Lee created.

Works Cited

Blackford, Holly. Mockingbird Passing: Closeted Traditions and Sexual Curiosities in

Harper Lee’s Novel. University of Tennessee Press, 2017.

Potyk, Darryl, and Cicely W White. “Another Lesson from the Mockingbird: Institutional Racism in Harper Lee’s to Kill a Mockingbird.” The American Journal of Medicine. 133, 11, 1360–1361, November 2020.

Liu Xi and Zhang Li-li, “On the Symbolic Significance of To Kill a Mockingbird,”

US-China Education Review B, 5, 4, 278-282, April 2015.


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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Katrina Andreassen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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