How Are Tom Robinson and Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird” Similar? Are They the Mockingbirds?
The title of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is one of pure metaphor. Heavy symbolism is placed on the idea of innocence throughout the picture, a theme represented by the mockingbird and reinforced through the creative construction of character names. The mockingbird is an image of helplessness that needs protected, only existing as a piece of purity. Mockingbirds can do no harm; they only transmit beauty through song and visual glory. Killing one, as is directly said in the film by Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) to his children, is a sin.
The Finch family is comprised of liberal lawyer patriarch Atticus and his two children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford). Their surname, Finch, draws connection to the mockingbird as a similar-looking small bird. Scout and Jem can be identified as mockingbirds in the symbolic sense, as their innocence is lost throughout the course of the film’s narrative, effectively killing the naivety they carried as children. Scout becomes a literal scout on a quest for understanding, gaining an appreciation of the moral lessons bestowed upon her by Atticus through the events of the film. But two other characters, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) and Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), more distinctly represent the symbolic concept of the mockingbird as their purity and innocence is killed by prejudice, anger, and fear in a manner that destroys both of them on a grand scale.
Boo Radley, a character whose first name incites images of fright and fear, is an ominous figure present only in the tanglings of Jem’s imagination and the superstition of town lore until the very end of the picture. He’s described as a vicious mongoloid, chained up in his dark and gloomy house to keep his malice away from the citizens of Maycomb. Though never seen, he manages to leave Jem small trinkets inside a hole in the trunk of a tree, which Jem collects and keeps in a box. They aren’t the gifts of some bestial ghoul, but thoughtful little icons of attempted friendship that slowly morph Boo from a place of imagination to reality for Jem.
As becomes known in the film’s final moments, Boo isn’t a monster but the psychologically wounded product of an abusive father. Despite all that has happened to him, he crosses the boundary of fear and prejudice to rescue Jem and Scout when they are attacked. Atticus and the town sheriff cover up Boo’s heroics by maintaining the children’s attacker died accidentally, so as to not draw attention to Boo and upset his reclusive lifestyle. He’s the ultimate mockingbird. Scout, having grown aware of the realities of prejudice and hatred over the course of the film’s events, says exposing him to the world would be like killing a mockingbird, circling back to her father’s previous conversation and tying up the theme.
Tom Robinson, another character with an avian name (Robin-son), serves as the film’s other mockingbird. Having visited the home of Mayella Ewell on numerous occasions with the honorable intent to help her with household chores, he eventually becomes the recipient of her sexual advances. Mayella’s father Bob (James Anderson) sees, beats her up, and accuses Robinson of rape. Given the time and place of the film’s setting, Robinson is persecuted for the crime despite the defense by Atticus Finch proving the truth of the matter. His sentence is the product of extreme fear and group prejudice, where townsfolk would rather agree to an obvious lie than life with the social trauma of one of their white women having thrown herself at a black man. Robinson doesn’t survive the film, he’s shot and “accidentally” killed after the trial in an attempt to flee.
Like Boo Radley, Robinson is an innocent who wasn’t protected or respected. He is a mockingbird that was killed when his only intent was to spread joy to others. His death comes from a place of unfounded fear and brutality issued upon him simply because he, like Boo, is an easy target.
Teach With Movies writes, “The two main plots curl around each other and end with the same moral, the innocent must be protected. The main plot involves the trial and death of Tom Robinson. The conflict was between the Finch family, primarily Atticus, and the racism in the town. The resolution was not satisfactory: Robinson was wrongly convicted and died. He deserved protection that he did not receive. The primary subplot is the story of Scout and Jem coming to realize that Boo Radley is a person and not just a freak. It ends after Boo kills Mr. Ewell and Scout understands that it would be like killing a mockingbird to drag Boo into the limelight. The conflict for the subplot is between the children and their own ignorance and immaturity. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley have much in common. They both try to help. They are the only people in the story who are imprisoned. Tom Robinson is persecuted because he’s black and Boo is persecuted by his parents for some long ago infraction. They are both at risk in the justice system of Maycomb. They are both “mockingbirds”. Wise men try to protect them both.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the perspective of Scout. She walks away from the story having grown the most, understanding the sources of evil and prejudice in her town but not becoming jaded by them. She gets a better understanding of human nature and learns it is possible to live with conscience without resorting to misanthropy.
“Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a knife… and our lives. One time Atticus said… you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
Hatred and ignorance threaten the innocent. People like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were unable to defend themselves against the troubles thrown their way. Boo was ruined by his father and unable to function as a regular member of society. Tom was accused of a crime he didn’t do and convicted by people unwilling to face reality, resulting in his death. Like the way a defenseless mockingbird can be shot dead despite doing no wrong and possessing no malice, Boo and Tom suffer the same consequence. Their fates remind people about the dangers of ignorance and the need for understanding, the way Scout comes to see the world, else humanity exist shallow and spiteful indefinitely.