The Theme of Innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird
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The Theme of Innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird

A comparison of two of the symbolic mockingbirds in Harper Lee's classic, comparing and contrasting Boo Radley and Tom Robinson.

Innocence, or the loss of innocence, is a theme that permeates many great works of literature. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is no exception. The novel compares many of its characters to mockingbirds, a symbol of pure innocence. Two of the most prominent of the novel’s mockingbirds are Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused and convicted of rape, and Boo Radley, an outcast from society who spends his days like a hermit locked up in his house. Tom provides something beneficial to society through his work and family, and contributes to the town as a whole much like a mockingbird’s ballad, while Boo remains separate from the society of Maycomb County, and barely contributes to it. Additionally, Tom tries to protect himself and his family from society’s prejudices by telling the truth in a court of law, and is killed for it, while Boo kills Bob Ewell to protect his “family” of Jem and Scout from Bob’s attack, showing a loss of innocence in Boo. These two arguments prove that Tom Robinson is a better representative of the symbolic mockingbird than Boo Radley.

Scout and Jem, who are the main characters of the novel, learn from their father, Atticus Finch, that to kill a mockingbird is a sin. When asking their neighbour, Miss Maudie Atkinson, why this is so, she replies “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.” (94) Tom Robinson is a better representation of the mockingbird because he contributes to society, whereas Boo Radley remains a hermit for the majority of the book, only coming out on one occasion during the novel. Tom Robinson is a dedicated member of the First Purchase Church, works for Mr. Link Deas in his field all year round, and tries to help Bob Ewell’s daughter, Mayella, on numerous occasions out of the goodness of his heart, shown through his testimony in court during chapter 19, where he says “I was glad to do it, Mr. Ewell didn’t seem to help her none, and neither did the chillun, and I knowed she didn’t have no nickels to spare.” (194) This shows he is similar to the mockingbird by giving something away because he is a wholly good person. In contrast to this, Boo Radley only leaves his house once, and while he does take care of Jem and Scout and give them presents, he does not contribute to society as a whole. This shows that Tom is a much better representation of the mockingbird because he contributes to society, while Boo does not.

Both Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were persecuted by the legal and social systems of Maycomb County. Boo is allowed to go free for his crimes simply because he is white, whereas Tom is convicted of a crime he never committed, raping Mayella, because he is black and is killed as a result of the colour of his skin. Additionally, the novel ends after Boo kills Bob Ewell, who is attacking Jem and Scout. Boo is allowed to go free, without trial. Tom, who defends his family’s way of life as well as his own life by telling the truth in court and remaining honest in the face of prejudice and racism, is killed because society cannot believe that his word is correct over a white woman’s. Boo, on the other hand, kills a man to protect his own family, and is allowed to continue living his life in solitude with no repercussions. Scout comments, after Sheriff Heck Tate tells her father, Atticus, that Bob Ewell fell on his knife, and that there will be no trial for his murder, that “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (279) While this quote does ring true, and shows that Boo is an innocent character, it also acts as a foil to Tom Robinson, who was shot. This quote shows that Tom is a much better representation of the mockingbird in the novel, because while putting Boo on trial would be like shooting a mockingbird, Tom was actually shot, just like the metaphorical mockingbird. Boo is forced to kill; Tom is killed. Boo’s murder of Bob Ewell shows a loss of innocence in his character, and highlights the tragedy of Tom being killed, as Tom’s death is the true sin of this novel.

Tom Robinson is more representative of the symbolic mockingbird than Boo Radley. This is because Tom contributes more to society than Boo through his work, family, and honesty, and because he is persecuted for crimes he never committed and dies as a result of his conviction, simply because of his skin colour and the prejudices that exist in the southern community of Maycomb County concerning black people. Boo, on the other hand, is not convicted or tried for his crimes, and is allowed to carry on his way of life even after murdering a man. The death of Bob Ewell at the hands of Boo shows a loss of innocence in Boo. The fact that Boo does not contribute very much to society and the people around him further weakens Boo’s comparison to the mockingbird, and makes Tom a much better representation of the metaphor. This theme of the mockingbird, or innocence, is one of the central themes of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and speaks to society as a whole on the subject of the destruction of innocence.

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Comments (1)

This is a well presented and informative work.

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