Teaching symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird

Teaching Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird

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Teaching symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the key reasons to include the novel in your course of study. Lee’s use of symbolism is simple, emphatic, and clear. Almost all of the symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird relates to one theme: It is a sin to harm innocent creatures. 

Perhaps Lee felt that the gravity of her main theme permitted no room for misinterpretation. Almost every symbolic element from the title, to the names of the characters, to the kids’ games illuminate this theme with single-minded focus. For this reason, To Kill a Mockingbird is the perfect text for students who are just gaining familiarity with this kind of analysis.

Teaching symbolism in Mockingbird overview
I like how the tree on this cover symbolizes the children moving toward adulthood as the seasons change.

For a critical reader, Lee’s symbolism appears heavy-handed and simplistic. However, her heavy-handed, single-minded approach is executed masterfully. The symbols develop naturally within the narrative and never distract the reader from the narrative.  This fact makes it ideal for students gaining familiarity with recognizing and analyzing symbolism in literature.

In completing this novel study, students analyze how the symbolism develops the main theme in order to demonstrate mastery of Reading Literature standard 2 (analyze theme development).

Related post: Should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird?

Approach summary:

  • Explore/review symbolism as a class.
  • Give the students the main theme topic so that they can record notes as they read.
  • Have students present on theme development.
  • Address secondary symbols (not directly related to the main theme).
  • Have students apply their knowledge of symbols (unrelated texts or original compositions)
Students mastering symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird
Picture from the U.S. Department of Education

Approaches for teaching symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird

Explore symbolism as a class before reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

I like to start by talking about visual symbols. I use a fun warm-up where the kids yell the answers at the screen as I show visual symbols (the bat signal, the peace sign, a coat of arms, the Great Seal of the United States, etc.). Students may yell, “Batman!” but I urge them on until someone says, “Fear!” or “Stealth!” or something interesting.

I transition from visual symbols to discuss how literary symbols work.  Emphasize that literary symbols are often complex, nuanced, or may even contain contradictory meanings. Use examples from short stories, other novels, shows, or movies to illustrate how the inclusion of literary symbols connects to other elements (e.g. symbols that develop a theme).

Ask the students to offer examples of literary symbols from their favorite movies or stories.  I am thinking of Rosebud in Citizen Cane, but the students will offer examples from their own favorites.

Building on students' knowledge of literary symbols

In the Hunger Games, the mockingjay is a complex literary symbol.  It represents both the power of the oppressors and the fragility (and innocence) of the rebellion.  The mockingjay is a genetic creation of the government that the resistance ingeniously uses to defend themselves.  The mutant bird is innocent in its creation.  The oppressive regime has created both the bird and the heroine, unwittingly leading to its own destruction.

After discussing popular examples, consider having students read a short story with symbolism.  “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe is a good candidate. (If you do not recall this story, the Amontillado wine symbolizes the narrators revenge, a long-awaited, rare, and exquisite treat.) Like Lee in to Kill a Mockingbird, Poe uses the title to emphasize the symbol’s value.

Tell the students to keep an eye out for literary symbols as they read To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee on the set of the film
Harper Lee on the set of the film

Give students the main theme topic: innocent creatures.

Before we even start reading, I tell the students that the author’s main theme topic is innocent creatures. By the end of the book, we must be able to put this theme topic into a complete sentence, and write (or present) on the theme’s development. What is Lee communicating about innocent creatures, and how does she do it?

This may seem too straightforward, but I want them to be able to cite textual evidence on this theme topic as they read.  They will be able to use these notes when they address the culminating task on symbolism and theme development.

Have students cite textual evidence on innocent creatures as they read.

Teaching symbolism as an element in theme development in To Kill a Mockingbird requires that the students cite many examples of textual evidence. Remind the students that whenever they read an excerpt that relates to innocent creatures, they should record the example. (Decide how formal you want this note taking to be.) This way they will be well prepared for the culminating task without having to read the book twice.

Citing textual evidence on innocent creatures in TKM

This approach enables higher achievement on the culminating task and fosters more active reading. Students know what their purpose is and read with this purpose in mind. As they record their notes, they are continually considering what Lee wants to say about innocent creatures.

You may want to have students collaborate and confer on their innocent creatures notes as they progress through the novel.  On the other hand, you may want them to keep their own notes so that they are not relying on their classmates to bail them out.

Not all of the examples will relate to symbolism, but many will. 

Sample notes on innocent creatures in To Kill a Mockingbird

(Page numbers refer to ISBN 978-0-446-31078-9)

17-18 “‘Dill, you have to think about these things…”

The kids discuss the feelings of turtles and whether or not is it sinful to light a match under a turtle’s shell.

44-45 “Two live oaks stood at the edge of the Radley lot…”

Scout starts finding gifts in the tree. This becomes the first clue that Boo Radley is a harmless creature after all.

84 “Atticus left us on the porch. Jem leaned on a pillar rubbing his shoulders…”

Jem thinks about the gift tree episode and is upset. It is implied that Jem is realizing his errors in assessing Boo.

95-97 “As we drank our cocoa I noticed Atticus looking at me…”

The family notices that someone put a blanket over Scout during the fire. Jem confesses the secrets he had been keeping from Atticus and realizes that they may be unfairly tormenting Boo.

100-101 “‘If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you…”

Atticus explains why he must defend Robinson as best he can even though they will not win. The fact that Tom’s name includes the name of a bird should not be overlooked.

119 “When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot…”

Atticus plainly explains why it is a sin to shoot a mockingbird and the novel’s theme.

127 “In a fog, Jem and I watched our father take the gun and walk…”

Atticus is compelled to shoot the dog. Is not the dog innocent? Why must it die? Atticus takes no joy in shooting the dog, but he must.

163-164 “My curiosity burst: “Why were you all takin’ up collection for…”

Helen Robinson cannot find work because of the accusations against her husband. The narrator describes working conditions for African American women. Segregation and racism are victimizing innocent people.

192 “Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around his dreamy head…”

Scout describes Dill’s sensitivity and imagination. Scout starts to catch up with Jem’s point of view in sympathizing with Boo Radley.

201-206 “As we walked up the sidewalk, we saw a solitary light…”

Atticus goes to the jail in order to prevent the lynching of Tom Robinson.

244-245 “I wondered if anybody had ever called her ‘ma’am,’ or ‘Miss Mayella’ in her life…”

Scout thinks about how sad Mayella’s life is. She was an innocent creature until she made her false accusations.

218 “The Negroes, having waited for the white people…”

Some white men (in no official capacity) decide when the black attendees can enter.

264-265 “‘You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?’ Mr. Gilmer seemed ready…”

The prosecution Lawyer humiliates Tom and tries to make him look impudent by calling him “boy” and “big buck.” The judge allows it.

319-320 “‘Don’t do that, Scout. Set him on the back steps…’”

Jem stops Scout from squashing an insect. Scout feels he is being overly sensitive.

322-323 “Mr. B.B. Underwood was at his most bitter…”

“He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds…” Mr. Underwood openly criticizes the town for harming an innocent man to protect the status quo.

342-343 “High above us in the darkness a solitary mocker…”

Scout listens to a mockingbird as they pass the Radley house and thinks of Boo (another harmless creature) as the mood is set for the coming attack. Bob Ewell plans to get his revenge on Atticus by killing the innocent kids.

370 “‘Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird…”

Scout understands why telling the truth would actually be a sin.  Publicizing the events would cause Boo great stress. They must keep the innocent man from harm.

Students determine which innocent creature examples include symbolism.

Once students have completed reading To Kill a Mockingbird, have them take stock of their notes and identify Lee’s theme regarding innocent creatures.  They may need to add key examples or elaborate on meanings that they missed. They can now determine which examples from their notes include symbolism.

Have the students write or present on how Lee uses symbols to develop her main theme.

The students have many examples to use as they focus on how Lee uses symbols. Have them write or present on how she develops her main theme, including her use of symbols. 

Students must be able to explain how the symbolic examples of birds and animals work in conjunction with other elements (the portrayal of the town’s racism, the views on Boo Radley, etc.) to develop the theme fully.

What other elements in To Kill a Mockingbird are symbolic?

Now that students are mastering the symbols related to innocent creatures and the main theme, challenge them to look for other symbols in the novel.

Note: You might prefer to have students look for these other symbols as they read the novel first time in addition to the symbols on the main theme.  For example, you could assign different students animals, plants, buildings, and seasons respectively.

Flowers and other symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird

Flowers

Mrs. Dubose, Miss Maudie, and Mayella all tend flowers.  For each they represent the joy of living.  For Mrs. Dubose and Mayella, however, they represent a joy that is absent from their lives.

Seasons

Lee gives special attention to the changing of the seasons.  The seasonal changes represent the growth of the children s they lose their naivete.

The Radley tree

The tree roots are literally reaching out into the community (damaging the road) just as Boo is using the tree to reach out to the children.  It represents his attempt to be included. His brother cements the hole in the tree and impedes Boo’s interaction with the world (as did his father).

The Radley house

The house represents sadness, isolation, and cruelty.  The condition of the house itself represents the condition of the souls within.

The jail

The description of the town’s jail is telling.  The jail is antithetical – a tiny yet pompous reflection of the town’s retention of hypocritical ideals.  It is meant to represent justice but serves injustice.  It is an ironic tribute to the town’s tradition of victimizing the oppressed.  Boo, as a white man, was detained in the courthouse basement rather than the jail.

students studying novels

You may want to have cooperative groups choose one of these symbols in order to present analysis to the class.  Ask the students whether or not their assigned symbol has a connection to the main theme.

After teaching symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird, have the students apply their skills.

The best way for students to demonstrate mastery of a literary element is by asking theme to apply what they have learned.  They might apply analysis of symbolism in an unrelated text or use symbolism in an original composition.

Assignment ideas:

  • Analyze symbol in an unfamiliar text. Read “The Grandfather” by Gary Soto, “Marigolds” by Eugenia Collier, or “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe and provide in-depth analysis of the main symbol.  (Of course, there are thousands of great short stories and poems focusing on symbolism to consider.)
  • Write an original short story where a symbol has a key connection to the theme. Make sure to have a clear point of view, setting, plot, characterization, and style.  Do not develop the theme explicitly, the reader should have to think about the meaning.
  • Write a personal essay focusing on something from your own life that has symbolic significance. “A video game controller represents my love of video games,” is not going to cut it.  The symbol should have complexity. Does the game controller represent a meaningful gift? Time with loved ones? The thrill of competition? An emotional outlet? An escape? An indictment of the value of formal education and a general disregard for homework? Guilt over failure as a family member who never does their chores?

Writing using symbolism

Teaching symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird summary:

  • Explore/review symbolism as a class.
  • Give the students the main theme topic so that they can record notes.
  • Have students present on theme development.
  • Address secondary symbols (not directly related to the main theme).
  • Have students apply their knowledge of symbols (unrelated texts or original compositions)

Lee’s use of symbolism has all of the subtlety of a sledge hammer, but it is equally effective. This is why teaching symbolism with To Kill a Mockingbird is so appropriate. Now that the students understand how to recognize and analyze how authors use symbolism, they will be better able to approach literary symbols that are more nuanced, complex, or ambiguous.

If you have found this information helpful, consider using my To Kill a Mockingbird Complete Unit and Teacher Guide.