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The Role of ‘Mockingbird’ in Literature Essay

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Updated: Nov 10th, 2021

Throughout the history of literature, from Homer to Rowling, there have been characters who have suffered and died needlessly to help writers make points, develop other characters, progress a plot, or to simply serve as a metaphor for something larger.

Such characters, referred to as “mockingbirds,” can be benign or dangerous, but more often or not, they are victims of circumstance; other characters hold specific fears, hatred, jealousy, or contempt for these “mockingbirds,” leading to the eventual destruction of the target. Such is the case regarding Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Cinna in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Lennie in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. These mockingbirds die to further their respective authors’ plots and to teach the audience about the tragedy in “killing a mockingbird.”

Tom Robinson, a strong, kind, and hard working black man in To Kill a Mockingbird unwittingly makes the mistake of assisting Mayella Ewell in various chores; this lead to her developing a crush on Tom, eventually causing her to rape (in a sense) him, with a kiss. Following a savage beating from her drunken and ignorant father, Bob Ewell, Tom is accused and convicted of raping Mayella, eventually resulting in his death.

Tom pitied Mayella, for he knew that she was basically alone in her filthy house (regardless of her siblings and lousy father); being a gentle soul, Tom reached out to Mayella and tried to make her life more tolerable by doing some simple tasks for her. His biggest mistake was to take pity on Mayella, as this was unacceptable to the social code of Maycomb in the 1930’s; blacks, regardless of their good intentions and clean living, were considered less than whites, even lowly white families like the Ewells. His good deeds were his beautiful mockingbird songs, and even though it was a sin to do so, the jury of the Maycomb Court convicted a crippled man (physically incapable of doing the crime) of forcibly raping a young white girl.

Lennie Small, the large, strong, and mentally delayed best friend to George Milton in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, is another character that could best be termed a “mockingbird.” His downfall rests in his inability to grasp his own physical strength and proper social conduct (he strokes a woman’s dress and another’s hair, unintentionally killing the second). In both instances, Lennie simply wants to explore his love for soft and pretty things, but those around him cannot get past his hulking size to see the childlike brain within his head; people see him as a threat, even though his heart lacks malice, and his greatest desire is to take care of bunnies on a farm, hardly the profile of a rapist/ murderer.

George knows that Lennie is much too tender to go through the savagery that awaits him for killing Curley’s Wife, so George “kills the mockingbird” of Lennie, putting a bullet in the back of his head after a moving discussion of their utopian dreams of owning their own land. Lennie’s status as a mockingbird is complicated, due to his committing a murder, but his feeble mind and tender heart coupled with his tragic end fit the bill.

In the case of Cinna in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cinna is not a major character in the story, yet he fits the criterion of a “mockingbird.” Cinna’s only purpose in ancient Rome, and in Shakespeare’s story, in to provide the world with beautiful rhymes and interesting tales, i.e. the role of the poet. Shakespeare chooses to have Cinna put to death at the hands of cruel and indifferent citizens who kill him simply because his name is Cinna.

He is mistaken for Cinna the Conspirator (against Caesar), but even after shouting out that he is Cinna the Poet, they decide to kill him anyway. Shakespeare uses Cinna in this instance to show the cruel indifference of mob mentality; when blood is in the air, the wolves become enraged! It would seem that Shakespeare may be attempting humor in this instance, nevertheless Cinna is clearly a mockingbird sacrificed to show the savagery of a mob.

Whether it is in the days of Shakespearean England, the racist deep South of the 1930’s, or California in the 1920’s, the mockingbird is a poignant device employed by all types of writers to make points, both subtle and obvious. Atticus Finch, Jem and Scout’s father, tells his children, and the reader, of the reasons why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, for they do nothing but sing all day. Cinna and Tom both fit this description, Cinna’s song being his poems and Tom’s being his selfless good deeds for others. Lennie’s song is a bit less vocal; his song is the repeated desire to take care of bunnies with George as they tend their own land.

As is often the case in nature, and in literature, such mockingbirds are simply the victims of outside circumstances or of a world that is incapable, either by choice or through ignorance, of appreciating the beautiful melodies that they give to everyone, without want of recompense.

Works Cited

Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

Shakespeare, William. Tragedies: Vol 2. London: Random House, 1996.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

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