To Kill a Mockingbird
The title of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a key to some themes
of the novel. The title is first explained in Chapter 10, at the time
that Scout and Jem Finch have just received air rifles for Christmas.
Atticus tells his children that it is a sin to shoot a mockingbird. Later
Miss Maudie explains to the children what Atticus meant: Mockingbirds
are harmless creatures who do nothing but sing for our enjoyment. Therefore,
it is very wrong to harm them.
It is easy to see that the "mockingbird" in this story is Tom
Robinson- a harmless man who becomes a victim of racial prejudice. Like
the mockingbird, Tom has never done wrong to anyone. Even the jurors who
sentence him to death have nothing personal against him. They find him guilty
mostly because they feel that to take the word of a black man over two whites
would threaten the system they live under, the system of segregation. Tom
himself is guilty of nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is possible that the mockingbird of the title has more than one meaning.
Today mockingbirds live in many northern states, but only a few decades
ago mockingbirds lived principally in the southeastern United States. Like
the mint julep or the song "Dixie," the mockingbird symbolized
the southern way of life- a culture that emphasized good manners, family
background, and a relaxed, unhurried pace of living. Unfortunately, another
aspect of this way of life was racial segregation, a system that had been
tolerated for decades by many southerners who knew in their hearts that
it was morally wrong.
By the time this novel was written perceptive southerners could see that
the opportunity for them to take the lead in ending segregation was already
past. The civil rights movement, led by blacks and supported by whites in
other parts of the country, was not only ending segregation, it was transforming
the politics and class structure that southerners had taken for granted
To Kill a Mockingbird contains criticism of the prejudice and moral laziness
that allowed Southern society to have a double standard of justice. The
novel also presents a somewhat optimistic view of white Southerners that
was somewhat unusual at the time the novel appeared. The story indicates
there are good human beings like Atticus Finch everywhere, even in the
midst of a corrupt society. Even those who do wrong, the novel goes on
to suggest, often act out of ignorance and weakness rather than a deliberate
impulse to hurt others.
There are always a few readers who feel that the novel offers an overly
optimistic and simplified view of human nature. On the other hand, the hopeful
note it strikes may be one of the reasons for the book's great popularity.
The author does not ignore the existence of evil in society, but she does
suggest that human beings are born with a desire to do the right thing.
Although most readers think of To Kill a Mockingbird as a novel about
racial prejudice, you will notice that the mockingbird theme does not apply
only to victims of this form of discrimination. Boo Radley, the eccentric
recluse, is another "harmless creature" who becomes a victim of
cruelty. Here again, the author seems to be emphasizing the universality
of human nature. Tom Robinson's problems may be bound up with the complex
social problem of racial prejudice, but any neighborhood can have its Boo
Radley, all but forgotten except as the subject of gossip and rumor.
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