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What often separates a good book, from a great work of literature is symbolism. So what is symbolism? That’s when the author takes some kind of concept or idea, and represents it by another thing, person, item. And believe it or not, symbolism is all over the place in the world, in your everyday life even. Like the statue behind me that represents work, or strength, and determination, and hard efforts paying off.
Symbolism can be found in literature for sure. Like Holden’s hat in Catcher in the Rye. And even in Pop culture, Dave Beda’s mask that’s also symbolism believe it or not.
Now in To Killing a Mockingbird, there is a ton of different symbols of play. The first one that we’re going to talk about today is Boo Radley’s Gifts to the Children. Then we'll move on to the Snowman and we’ll finish up with mocking bad. And decide who in this book is a mocking bird? Who isn’t? And what it all means.
Can you believe that some people actually characterise To kill a Mockingbird as children’s literature? That completely blows my mind. And I’ve got to think that those people somehow are related to this 1960’s reviewer, who called To kill a Mockingbird pleasant undemanding reading. Are you kidding me? Seriously? Undemanding reading, race relations, a trial, rape not demanding at all. I can’t help bit think that these people don’t think about symbolism at all, and we don’t want to be like those people.
So we’re going to talk about three different symbols that are used through the course of the book. The first of which are Boo Radley’s Gifts to the Children. Do you remember what they all are? Let’s go through some real quick.
We have two pieces of gum and later on a pack of gum, two Indian head pennies. There's also a bowl of grey twine, a spelling medal first place, a pocket watch, and a knife. Now together, this might seem like a really weird motley collection of items. But to children, this is pretty much a bounty of treasure. I remember when I was little, one of my favourite things to play with, at my grandfather’s house was his key ring. He had like a hundred keys on it and I would walk around the house pretending to lock and unlock doors. I don’t, it fascinated me and that’s kind of what these items are. They are strange little things that might not mean anything to adults. They are like, “It’s just a bunch of junk.” But to Jem and to Scout, these things are really cool.
And in it, we can kind of see some symbolism of Boo being a good innocent person. He’s reaching out to these children and giving them things that he knows that he knows he’s going to enjoy, they’re going to enjoy. And we can take the symbolism even a step further, when we see Mr. Radley come out, he takes the node hole in the tree that Boo’s being putting all these presents in and he fills it up. So it’s not there anymore. This kind of, is suspects, he says, “Oh the tree is dying and I was trying to keep from dying.” That doesn’t really seem like it’s the case. It seems more like Mr. Radley ids trying to negate the goodness and the innocence, and stop this positive thing that’s happening between Boo and the children.
So to take that symbolism, you can kind of run with it and look at these different things as a lot more than just these little collections of strange knick-knacks and items.
The next symbol we’re going to talk about is Jem’s Snowman. You do remember the Snowman in chapter eight. You want a little of refresher? Let’s go back into the book, I’ve got a passage about it. “Jem ran to the backyard produce the garden hoe and began digging quickly behind the wood pile, placing any worms he find to one side. He went in the house, returned with the laundry hamper, filled it with earth and carried it to the front yard. Then a little bit later Jem scooped up some snow and began plastering it on. He permitted me to cover only the back saving the public parts for himself. Gradually the snowman turned white.”
So do you get what’s going on here? In terms of context. There is not a lot of snow in Alabama, and this is a big exciting thing. They’re very determined to make this snowman. It’s kind of like the first snow of the year. I don’t know where you live, but I know that when I see the first of the snow of the year I want to go slide, and drink hot chocolate, and build a snowman, and do snow angels even when if there is like this much snow on the ground. So, they’re very excited on that level, but a little bit more than that because they’re in Alabama.
So, essentially what Jem is doing here, is taking mad and earth, and he is creating kind of like a base for the snowman like this. Then Jem takes the snow since there is a limited amount, and puts it on top and kind of forms it around the dark base that he has. I want you think about that imagery. Keep in it in your mind as we discuss this, the symbol of the snowman and what it really represents.
I would have to say that the snowman with a dark and the light together, shows us the idea of peaceful coexistence. It’s the mixing of dark and light together. Now that’s really important because race relations is a key to the whole book. So in the snowman, we have the dark and the light working together to produce something.
Now Scout’s initial reaction to the snowman, first she laughs. She actually uses the N word and says she’s never seen that kind of snowman before. This is important because it really represents the era, the community, that prejudice, that racism that kind of existed as like everyday feelings.
Atticus on the other hand just thought this was genius. He thought it was this fantastic idea and he praises his son. He says, “I didn’t know how you were going to do it, but from now on I’ll never worry about what will become of you son, you’ll always have an idea.” So the fact that Jem used his ingenuity to put this together, is really impressive to Atticus. And he was really proud of his son for being able to that. If you think about Atticus, he’s the character in the book that is the most progressive. That argues the most for equality between blacks and whites. So it makes sense, that he would feel very positive about his son, putting the black and the white together.
The last thing that’s very important to consider about the snowman, is that in the end, it’s destroyed by fire. So this big event comes and so much for the dark and the light together. Fire here might represent prejudice. It’s stronger than Jem and his idea of equality and working together. So we’ve done the snowman, we’ve taken care of that. Let’s move on to the biggest symbol in the whole book, and of course the title. Let’s move on to the Mockingbird.
So here is the big one, the mack daddy, the Mockingbird, the biggest symbol in the whole book of course. The mockingbird is first introduced in chapter ten. Let's look at what Atticus says first. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit them but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That’s the big quote. I guarantee you you’re going to talk about that in class, it’s going to show up on your tests. That’s like the mother of all of them.
However, we’ve got a little bit more explanation when we talked to Miss Maude a little bit later on. She says, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up peoples gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing heir hearts out for us that’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
So essentially when we’re talking about symbolism, mockingbird is representing someone or something that is good. That only exists for good reasons, it kind of has the idea of innocence with it. So if we take that symbol a little bit further, there are people within the book that we could consider to be mockingbird.
The first mockingbird I want to talk about is Boo Radley. Boo has only got the desire to do good. We see that in him when he leaves the toys for the children, when he brings Scout the blanket, the night of the fire, when he rescues Jem and Scout at end of the book. He has only good intentions. And the entire community treats him really badly and in a sense they kill him not literally, but figuratively in that way. They don’t trust him, they try to prevent him from doing what he wants to do, they look down on him, they essentially persecute him. Boo Radley is definitely a mockingbird.
The next one I want to talk about, is Tom Robinson. Now Tom is really a good man. Remember he went over to Mayella Ewel’s house to help her. She asked him some assistance, he’s a good guy. He went over there to help her. He had only good intentions and we know what happened to him, he was wrongfully accused, he went to trail, he was shot in the end. There is a literal killing of a mockingbird in that situation.
“Mr. Underwood didn’t talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand...He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children...” So we’re kind of really driving this symbol home with that quotation. The literal killing is like killing a mockingbird, this innocent creature that just wants to sing.
There are other mockingbirds in the story as well, think about Dill. He’s a good hearted little guy, with kind of a screwed up family situation and he tries to persevere as well.
Jem could be seen as a mockingbird. We tend to think of children as innocent to begin with. And his innocence is questioned or killed if you will, within the story, because he sees all the different things that are happening within his community.
The same can be said for Scout. In her coming of aid story, her innocence is killed because these horrible things are happening, and she needs to wrap her little eight year old mind around what’s going on.
One last mockingbird, Mr. Raymond. Do you remember who he is? This was the white man who was married who was married to a black woman. This was completely unheard of in this community. And he was really a disgrace in the eyes of many people. He was completely treated unfairly because of his choices that he made in his life. He wasn’t trying to bother anyone, he married this woman for love, he had no harmful intentions but he was prosecuted as a result. So he too can be seen as a mockingbird.
With all these different symbols that we’ve used, you can really take them into your classroom now. And see which you can get started. We’ve really just began here. You get to now take this and run with it.
In case you were watching the Spaghetti cat clip online again, here is the gist of what you missed in this episode. We talked symbolism. We did the mockingbird, the snowman, all those weird gifts that Boo Radley left in the tree for the kids. So we’re kind of all over the place. But now you’ve got a better understanding of what To Kill a Mockingbird is all about. And what these different symbols all represent.
In the next episode, we are going to go even bigger than that. We’re going to take this new knowledge of symbols and we’re going to address theme. So we’re going to take a look at the big picture.