Figurative Language & Metaphors in To Kill a Mockingbird

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  • 0:01 Figurative Language
  • 0:35 Metaphor
  • 2:21 Similes
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

In 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' Harper Lee uses figurative language to create visual experiences and connections so the reader can understand. Her use of metaphors and similes add depth to the narrative.

Figurative Language

When we look at Harper Lee's book To Kill a Mockingbird we are struck by the way she uses imagery. She uses figurative language to draw the reader into the experiences she describes. Figurative language is when the writer uses language whose meaning is different from the literal interpretation. The language can pack a larger punch, be more visual, be more persuasive, and more effectively hold the reader's imagination. There are many types of figurative language, but we will focus our attention on the metaphor and the simile.


Metaphors make comparisons between two things that appear to be dissimilar, but in actuality have a lot in common. The use of metaphors helps make what we read more visual and engaging. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's use of imagery helps us see the town and feel as though we're right there in the courtroom when Tom is convicted. We feel Scout's frustration when Aunt Alexandra tries to force her to be more ladylike. Lee gives us language that we can grab on to, language that forces us to think.

''I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.''

Here Atticus explains to Jem why he thinks Mrs. Dubose is braver than anyone he has ever known. With this comparison, Lee allows us to visualize what courage is and what it is not.

Metaphors don't always have to be serious:

''Your name's longer'n you are. Bet it's a foot longer.''

Jem says to Dill, comparing the boy's long full name to his short stature.

Metaphors can transport us into the novel. We become one with the characters because we can visualize their experiences.

''Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree-house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape.''

Lee describes summer in Maycomb in a way that may have us nodding in recognition. Summer is more than a season; the language sings with comparatives, a joyous array of images and experiences.


Similes make a comparison between two things so the visual image is stronger. What makes a simile distinctive is the use of like or as; it is the signal that the comparison is happening. ''Life is like a box of chocolates,'' taken from Forrest Gump, is a perfect example of a simile. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee frequently uses similes in a way that delights our minds.

Scout is a young girl who prefers the life of a tomboy. Her Aunt Alexandra has other ideas, and she insists that Scout behave like a lady. Alexandra feels so strongly about this, that Scout tells us,

''Aunty said that one had to behave like a sunbeam.''

Scout's language is unique and engaging. We see it in this simile when she describes Mrs. Dubose:

''She was horrible. Her face was the color of a dirty pillowcase, and the corner of her mouth glistened with wet, which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin.''

When Scout describes events, her language is rich and colorful, which help us see exactly what she means. When she describes Atticus as he walks toward Tim Johnson, the town dog who people believe is mad, she says,

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Additional Activities

Figurative Language in To Kill A Mockingbird

Analysis of Figurative Language Essay

For this essay, you will analyze Lee's use of figurative language in her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. You will respond to the following prompt:

How does Lee use figurative language to enhance her writing in To Kill a Mockingbird?

First, determine at least three different types of figurative language that Lee often uses in the book. You can choose metaphor, simile, diction, imagery, or any other figurative language present in her novel.

Next, you need to identify examples of each type of figurative language that you want to write about in your essay. For example, if you are going to write about metaphor, simile, and diction, you need to find several examples of all three types of figurative language. Once you have found these examples, organize your information using the below outline. Use this outline to guide your writing. Once you have completed your rough draft, make sure to proofread, edit, and revise before turning-in.

I. Introduction

  • Hook/Attention-Getter
  • Provide context (Introduce the book. Make sure to include the author, the title, and some background information about the book).
  • State the types of figurative language that Lee uses (thesis statement)
  1. Example of a thesis statement: In her novel, Harper Lee uses metaphors, similes, and imagery to create memorable characters and remarkable literature.
  2. Make sure to include the figurative language Lee uses, and explain how it enhances her writing.

II. Body Paragraphs

  • Figurative Language Type #1
  1. Provide examples from the book of Lee's use of this type of figurative language
  2. Explain how these examples enhance her writing. Make sure this aligns with what you said in your thesis statement.
  • Figurative Language Type #2
  1. Provide examples from the book of Lee's use of this type of figurative language
  2. Explain how these examples enhance her writing. Make sure this aligns with what you said in your thesis statement.
  • Figurative Language Type #3
  1. Provide examples from the book of Lee's use of this type of figurative language
  2. Explain how these examples enhance her writing. Make sure this aligns with what you said in your thesis statement.

III. Conclusion

  • Summarize main points
  • Re-state thesis statement. Make sure it is stated differently than in your introduction.
  • If possible, connect back to your hook for a full-circle ending.

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