To Kill a Mockingbird: Themes, Symbols & Imagery

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  • 0:00 What Are Literary Devices?
  • 0:54 Themes in 'To Kill a…
  • 1:32 Symbols in 'To Kill a…
  • 4:02 Imagery in 'To Kill a…
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

'To Kill a Mockingbird' is a timeless classic that reminds the reader to never judge a book by its cover and that social change is possible. In this lesson, we will travel to Maycomb, Alabama, to analyze the themes, symbols and imagery in the novel.

What Are Literary Devices?

When we think of the word identity, we think of people, but books have identities just like humans. By using literary devices, we can peel back the layers of plot to find deeper meaning in a novel, which reveals a book's personality. These layers can help readers connect the story to their own lives. Before we begin, let's review the literary devices that we will discuss.

A theme is a universal message or lesson. A symbol is a character, object, place or color that represents a deeper meaning, such as a concept, theme or idea. Imagery is the mental pictures an author creates in the reader's mind using vivid descriptions.

These three literary devices create depth and meaning, as well as the story's identity, in To Kill a Mockingbird. Let's take a look at how Harper Lee uses these devices to bring To Kill a Mockingbird to life.

Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird

The first themes are judgment and prejudice. Atticus tells Scout that you shouldn't judge a person until you walk around in their skin. This message becomes the crux of the novel. Characters such as Walter Cunningham Jr., Boo Radley and the Radley family, Dolphus Raymond, Tom Robinson and even Mayella Ewell are marginalized by society due to their reputations for things they may or may not have done. Atticus continuously drives home this message to his kids, particularly Scout, reminding them that unless you are experiencing something for yourself, you shouldn't judge someone else's life and/or life choices.

Another theme is integrity. Although the majority of the people in Maycomb have a prejudice regarding race and status, Atticus stands up for what he believes in. He says more than once that he would never be able to face his kids and his town if he didn't defend Tom Robinson. Atticus's actions remind his kids and the reader that it is important to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.

Taking the easy way out does not afford social change. Atticus knows the jury will find Tom guilty, but the beauty of this Sisyphean task comes from the hours of deliberation the jury endures. This is a victory for Atticus and the town, and a step in the right direction. The story teaches us that a majority is not necessarily good or just. Atticus shows us that standing up for what is right can help change people's perceptions, which can ultimately change the world.

Symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird

One the main symbols in this novel is introduced in the title: the mockingbird. Miss Maudie explains that 'it's a sin to kill a mockingbird,' because 'mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy'; they don't bother or harm anyone. The mockingbird becomes a symbol of innocence in the story, connecting to the characters Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Characters, such as Jem, Dolphus Raymond and Dill, who suffer the consequences of society's hateful ways, are also connected to the symbol. These characters keep to themselves and cause harm to no one, yet are judged, shunned, and are emotionally or physically harmed by society.

Another symbol is the knothole in the tree. Boo Radley leaves several items in the knothole of a tree on the edge of his lot. This knothole represents the communication between Boo and the outside world and the friendship between Boo and the children. Leaving gifts shows he cares for the kids and wishes to be more than a recluse. Later in the story, the knothole is filled with cement by Boo's brother, causing more conflict and judgment in Scout and Jem's mind.

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