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Harper Lee’s Use Of Symbolism To Represent Racism In To Kill A Mockingbird

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Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird on the cusp of the Civil Rights era, hoping to inspire change. The novel was published during the period of “racial” unrest in the 1950s, while the setting of the book takes place in the “Depression era” involving the “social conditions of the civil rights era” in the 1930s. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird as well as the sources “Symbolism and Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Historical Context: To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Minorities in the Depression”, and “Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmet Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird” all incorporate information displaying the novel’s influences from 1930s history. Both the inner universe of “character” and the outer universe of events are portrayed expressively throughout the story and help to shape a novel full of imagery and awareness.

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The author Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird uses symbolism in her novel to convey historical events involving racism in the 1930s. The most prominent symbol in To Kill a Mockingbird comes directly from the title. When Scout and Jem are gifted air rifles from Uncle Jack, Atticus refuses to teach them how to aim and shoot. However, as Atticus finds Jem aiming at cans, he tells him,“‘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’”. At this moment in the novel, the symbolic sense of the mockingbird is introduced. Mockingbirds are pure creatures that have one purpose; to imitate sweet music. Throughout the book, ‘the mockingbird symbolizes Tom Robinson, and underprivileged black people in general’. The mocking bird also represents Boo Radley, an innocent, trusting man who would never cause violence. He simply stays indoors to avoid the racist and dishonest community outside his home. On the other hand, people regard blue jays as intimidating birds, because of their noisiness, dominance and violence. The blue jays portray the bigoted people who discriminate against African Americans in Maycomb County. Harper Lee’s plan to incorporate the mockingbird to symbolize Tom Robinson and Boo Radley was inspired by indigent black people in the 1930s who were treated horribly without protection or enforcement of their rights until the 1960s, although they had committed no wrong. In contrast, blue jays represent the white people who inflicted violence or destroyed the dignity of African Americans because of their skin color. Therefore, through the use of mockingbirds and blue jays in To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee symbolically demonstrates the way racism wrecked innocence in the 1930s.

Confrontations Jem and Scout face with Mrs. Dubose are also flooded with symbolism. As they pass her house each day, Mrs. Dubose launches insults towards the children, sharing her personal thoughts and opinions about Atticus and his work. In one situation, Mrs. Dubose shouts,’’Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in a courthouse lawing for niggers!’. . . ’Yes indeed, what has this world come to when a Finch goes against his raising? I’ll tell you!’. . . ’Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for’’. Mrs. Dubose’s language, and the racist things she says, not only represent her own views but are symbolic for the views of the rest of Maycomb County. Additionally, in Aunt Alexandra’s missionary circle meeting, symbolic language is intertwined with bitter irony as the group discusses the Mrunas in Africa. Mrs. Grace Merriweather says, “‘Not a white person’ll go near ‘em but that saintly J. Grimes Everett’. . . ’The poverty. . . the darkness. . . the immortality – nobody but J. Grimes knows’. . . ’the ladies of the Maycomb Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church South are behind you one hundred percent. ’ That’s what I said to him”. The women present bitter irony by the fact that they express sympathy for, and are eager to support the Mrunas, even though black people in Maycomb County are in the same position as them. In fact, the Mrunas in Africa symbolize the poor African Americans in Maycomb. When Aunt Alexandra reprimands Atticus for allowing Jem and Scout to watch the trial, he ripostes, “’. . . they might as well have to cope with it. . . It’s just as much Maycomb County as missionary teas’”. Atticus’s response symbolically indicates that the missionary teas are as racist as Tom Robinson’s trial. Therefore, Harper Lee included symbolism with Mrs. Dubose and the Missionary teas to represent racist language and predjudice that occupied the expanse of the 1930s.

Throughout the novel, flowers are used symbolically to represent various themes. Lee first incorporates flowers in her vivid description of the Ewell’s property. The Ewells yard is described as a ‘dump’ and the property is covered with random items scattered all over the yard. However, to Maycomb’s confusion, in the corner of the backyard “against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson. . . People said they were Mayella Ewell’s”. The flowers, the only beautiful and colorful object on the property symbolizes ‘southern white womanhood’. The fence that encircles the Ewell’s yard is symbolic of predjudice and ‘fear’ that attempts to shield this womanhood from interbreeding with black men. Harper Lee includes the flowers to represent a similar situation when the Brown v. Board of Education was created and southerners were aggravated with the fear of mixed races blending and fairness for blacks. Flowers are also included symbolically in To Kill a Mockingbird when Jem uses Scout’s baton to chop Mrs. Dubose’s camellia flowers down in a fit of rage after she insults Atticus. Because the flowers are white, the wrecking of the camellias symbolizes Jem’s attempt to rid the racist ways of white Maycomb people. When Atticus presses Jem to ‘nurse the flowers back to health’, Jem’s tending to the camellias indicates his fearlessness and how he controls his bravery so he will be capable of accepting what others say about his family and ignore it. When Jem treats the flowers, it also symbolizes his efforts to eliminate the prejudice in Maycomb. The second symbolic use of flowers portrays African Americans such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. who orchestrated movements to stand up against racism and end it. Therefore, Harper Lee incorporated two different representations of symbolic flowers to represent protecting women from miscegenation and the people who contributed to ending racism in the 1930s.

During Tom Robinson’s trial, Harper Lee adds symbolic language in the dialogue as witnesses are brought up to the stand. Almost immediately after Bob Ewell was called up to testify by Mr. Gilmor, he stood up and declared, “’I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!’” This filthy language, particularly the way ‘ruttin’,’ is applied to the sentence, symbolically portrays black men and Tom Robinson as animals, inflicting a beastly and inhumane aspect to black men. Furthermore, when Mr. Gilmer cross examines Tom Robinson, the witness in court, he repeatedly refers to him as a ‘boy’, which is extremely demeaning to a black man. Continually, Mr. Gilmer behaves like a bigot by describing Tom Robinson as a ‘big buck’. After hearing Mr. Gilmer and Bob Ewell speak such harsh and racist words in trial, even the children are, “. . . stunned by the judgment fumble for words”. Harper Lee includes racist symbolic language to represent the cruelty of white men to black men. In fact, Lee similarly created the Tom Robinson trial around the Emmett till trial of 1955. For instance, “in both cases, the concept of child murder figures prominently in the calculus of revenge for the racial and social shame of a class of poor Southern whites”. Therefore, Harper Lee developed racist and symbolic language in the Tom Robinson trial to represent the actual Emmett Till trial.

When a rabid dog struggles onto Jem and Scout’s street, symbolism is presented when Atticus shoots the mad dog. The way Tim Johnson, the rabid dog spreads its illness, portrays how discrimination continues spreading in the South. When Atticus shoots the dog, he symbolically kills and destroys prejudice and racism, stopping it from spreading. Atticus’s actions represent equity and reason as he symbolically destroys racism in Maycomb County. In the novel, after Atticus shoots the dog, the neighbors open their doors “. . . one by one, and the neighborhood slowly came alive”. The opening of the neighbor’s doors as soon as the risk is gone is symbolic for the fact that Atticus could protect the people from a rabid dog but not defend an innocent black man against racist white people. Harper Lee refers the shooting of the dog to destroying past conflicts regarding mixed marriages or relationships between black men and white women, the label of the ‘black rapist’, and the influence of such beliefs in the South. In a way, Atticus’s effort to kill the mad dog and African Americans efforts to end racism are symbolically related. Atticus successfully shoots the mad dog, while African Americans movements successfully sparked laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Bill of 1968 to establish. The laws outlawed racial unfairness from occurring everywhere in public and at home. Therefore, Harper Lee created symbolism when Atticus shoots the mad dog to represent the efforts African Americans made in ending conflicts in the prejudiced South during the 1930s. Harper Lee uses the act of Jem and Scout building a snowman to portray a significant symbolic event. On the rare occasion that it snowed in Maycomb, there was not enough snow to build the snowman out of pure snow. Instead, Jem created a ‘foundation out of dirt’ and the children covered the sculpted mud with the available snow left. As Jem builds the snowman Scout remarks, ‘’Jem, I ain’t ever heard of a nigger snowman’” and he replies ‘He won’t be black long’”. The snowman is symbolic of Jem concealing the black man to prove that he is similar to a white man, and all humans are the same internally, although they may look differently. When Miss Maudie’s house caught on fire that night, her burning home represents the prejudice of Maycomb, because the heat from the fire melted the thin cover of white snow off the snowman and left behind black mud. The fire symbolizes white people discriminating black people by arguing that blacks and whites are nothing alike. When the snowman was complete, Atticus agreed with Jem’s views by commenting,’’I didn’t know how you were going to do it, but from now on I’ll never worry about what’ll become of you, son, you’ll always have an idea’’.

On the other hand, the merge of mud and snow into one whole snowman represents mixed marriages or sexual relationships between people of different skin color. The fire at Miss Maudie’s house melting the snowman except for the mud portrays the prejudice of Maycomb demonstrating that miscegenation is just as worst as a pure black person and they are not the same. On the other hand, the merge of mud and snow into one whole snowman represents mixed marriages or sexual relationships between people of different skin color. The fire at Miss Maudie’s house melting the snowman except for the mud portrays the prejudice of Maycomb demonstrating that miscegenation is just as worst as a pure black person and they are not the same. Therefore, Harper Lee included two different representations of building a snowman and Miss Maudie’s fire to portray that black people are the same as white people and miscegenation is not better than a pure white person, despite white people’s different opinions. Harper demonstrated conflicts in the South during the 1930s in her novel by including racial symbolism through the efforts of racist white people, the children, and Atticus. Through the use of mockingbirds and blue jays Harper Lee symbolically demonstrates the way racism wrecked innocence. By including symbolism with Mrs. Dubose and the Missionary teas, Lee represented racist language and predjudice. By incorporating two different representations of symbolic flowers, Harper Lee represents protecting women from miscegenation and the people who contributed to ending racism. Additionally, Harper Lee developed racist and symbolic language in the Tom Robinson trial to represent the actual Emmett Till trial. When Atticus shoots the mad dog to represent the efforts African Americans made in ending conflicts in the prejudiced South, Harper Lee created symbolism. Finally, Lee included two different representations of building a snowman and Miss Maudie’s fire to show that black people are the same as white people and miscegenation is not better than a pure white person, despite white people’s different views.

Without symbolism in literature, authors wouldn’t be able to convey imagery and meaning in their writing. It is a vital tool that adds impact to the writing and without it, To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t have been as realistic and significant. Through symbolism, Harper Lee developed depth to her novel and was able to intertwine history and the issue of racism into her symbols.

10 December 2020

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