Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ʼem, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
Knowing that Jem and Scout will most likely use their air rifles to shoot at birds rather than tin cans as he’s requested, Atticus admonishes them to avoid killing mockingbirds. This is the first time mockingbirds are mentioned in the novel. Although the mockingbird is only mentioned a few times in the story, its symbolic meaning—something innocent and harmless that doesn’t deserve to be punished or hurt in any way—pervades the novel. Both Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are associated with the symbol, and the children embrace its figurative power.
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.
Immediately after Atticus shares the rule about shooting mockingbirds with Jem and Scout, Miss Maudie steps in to explain it to them. Her words further set up this central symbol of the novel, which represents innocence and compassion, purity and simplicity. Mockingbirds don’t do anything to hurt humans, and it is up to humans, in turn, to protect them. According to Atticus, killing a mockingbird is a sin, and Scout observes that this is the first time she’s ever heard him call something a “sin.”
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, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in
After Tom Robinson’s death, the citizens of Maycomb respond in myriad ways. Mr. Underwood, the editor of the local newspaper, who, according to Atticus, openly dislikes African Americans, responds in a way that even “children could understand.” By using the words “senseless slaughter,” Underwood elevates Tom’s death to a biblical or even archetypal level. By evoking a comparison to “songbirds,” he supports the central symbol of the novel, the mockingbird. By using such “poetical” language, he exhibits that good writers often make observations that appear simple but are deeply profound.
High above in the darkness a solitary mocker poured out his repertoire in blissful unawareness of whose tree he sat in, plunging from the shrill kee, kee, of the sunflower bird to the irascible qua-ack of a bluejay, to the sad lament of Poor Will, Poor Will, Poor Will.
Scout observes the sounds above her as she and Jem begin their “longest journey together” and set off on foot toward the school for the performance. By describing the mockingbird’s song, she figuratively describes Boo Radley in three moods: blissful unawareness, irritability, and a sad lament. Like Boo, the mockingbird gives back what he hears. The bird responds rather than initiates. It’s a lovely, evocative, poetic sentence, featuring a trio of sounds that culminate in an eerie foreboding.
“Yes sir, I understand,” I reassured him. “Mr. Tate was right.”
Here, Scout explains to Atticus why she understands why the sheriff, Mr. Tate, is lying to the community about Bob Ewell’s death. She and Atticus know that Bob Ewell didn’t fall on his knife, as Mr. Tate claims, but that Boo Radley is technically responsible for his death. Scout understands the reason for this lie because of the association she makes with the mockingbird, a lesson Atticus taught her earlier in the novel: It’s a sin to wound or kill something that is innocent and harmless, and despite Bob Ewell’s death, Boo Radley is both. The symbol comes full circle during this dialogue at the end of the novel’s penultimate chapter.