Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird touches on many aspects of human nature and reveals the depths of the heart through both cruelty and compassion. Through the eyes of a child, Harper Lee shows the injustices of prejudice and the loss of innocence – and innocents. The idea of the destruction and corruption of innocence is a central theme in the book, and can be seen in the title and is made explicit several times in the book. Miss Maudie tells Scout, “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” (90). Through the book, mockingbirds become a symbol of innocence – and its devastation.
Harper Lee’s portrayal of the destruction of innocence isn’t limited only to the children in her story. Jem, Dill, Tom Robinson, and Boo Radley can all be considered “mockingbirds” – people who were either substantially changed or injured by contact with the cruelty around them. The transition of growing up is especially explicit in Jem, and through his struggles to understand the poles of human behavior, it is made evident that it’s hard to lose innocence without losing hope as well. In the case of Tom Robinson, he was simply a man caught up in a centuries-old prejudice ingrained in nearly every aspect of the lives Maycomb citizens, and after his death, Mr. Underwood likens his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children” (241).
Scout can also be seen as a mockingbird as she tries to understand the prejudice she sees around her. At one time, when she sees the vehemence felt against the acts of Hitler by her teacher, she wonders to Jem, “how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about the folks right at home” (247). Throughout the book, it becomes obvious that vulnerability comes with innocence, and often, the careless acts of cruelty cut deeply into their naivety. However, both Scout and Jem, like Atticus, learn to hold onto their faith that humanity comes with a mix of good and bad, and at the end, when Scout comments that the character in the book Atticus read to her was actually “real nice” at the end, Atticus responds with the ultimate lesson he’s tried to teach them – that “most people are, Scout, when you finally see them” (281).