To Kill a Blue Jay – Symbolism in Harper Lee’s Masterwork
By Kelly Dean
I, like many teens, first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as part of required reading in high school. Over the years, since its publication in 1960, many scholars and readers have attempted to dissect the meaning of the title. Immediately, it’s assumed that the title references the death of innocence and justice — themes woven throughout the novel. Scout, Tom and Boo each represent a different type of innocence.
Unfortunately, most take the title out of context with how it’s referenced in the book: “… to kill a mockingbird is a sin,” says Atticus Finch. But that isn’t all that he says. To paraphrase, Atticus says that it’s OK to shoot blue jays, if you can hit them, but killing a mockingbird is a sin. As a young reader, I always wondered why there was this harsh distinction between blue jays and mockingbirds.
The mockingbird seems obvious, but the blue jay in this narrative deserves some thought as well. Harper was speaking to how these birds behave when observed, as is quite easy in the rural south, in the years before television and video games dragged children indoors.
In Florida, where the mockingbird is the state bird it’s easy to observe and enjoy the striped-winged songster. They are virtually all over, in every field, in every backyard and on every telephone line. It seems appropriate for a bird that likes to chatter anytime anyone walks nearby, producing a seemingly endless series of distinctly different bird calls, one after the other. But this is to scare intruders away from their nearby nest. Once you’re a safe distance away, they generally stop and go about their business.
They don’t want to make a fuss; although the calls can be somewhat annoying after a while, they are simply defending themselves, as if one of the calls in its arsenal should scare you somehow. As you walk away, they quickly fade.
Mockingbirds are successful defending their turf, tree and thicket from other birds for the most part. They don’t mind challenging another mockingbird – or even small snakes, but it’s all about defending itself and its nest. I’ve seen two mockingbirds face-off against one another in a ballet-like bumping and jumping match, which only lasts for a few seconds. One generally flies away. I’ve also witnessed a mockingbird pick up and drop a garter snake at intervals – thus assisting the snake’s departure from the area, like a bouncer in a bar.
But its actions always seem to be defensive in nature and not aggressive.
The blue jay, on the other hand, is sort of a bully. It simply doesn’t tolerate other birds being around. If you spend time observing them, which I’m sure Harper Lee had, you’d note how physically defensive the blue jay can be when other birds are around. Any other bird approaching its nest will be chased and attacked and it usually isn’t much of a fight. Certainly, not communal in nature, the jay’s nest is usually the only one in the tree and it not only defends it but forces all other birds out of the entire area. There are lines of trees along fencerows where there are only blue jay nests, one after the other.
Blue jay verses Mockingbird
I think this distinction between the two birds is the symbolism Harper was trying to express. Mockingbirds are naturally more sympathetic in the context of Lee’s prose. They could easily represent innocence, but more importantly, they are keen to defend themselves. They are not outwardly aggressive. In that context, Scout, Boo, Tom as mockingbirds might represent innocence, but the aggressive blue jay represents the racially and economically torn society of the time. Bob is a blue jay. The mob is a fencerow of blue jays. Society is a community of blue jays.
Tom as a mockingbird also represents the human right to defend oneself against his bullies, but he ultimately fails, as is often the case. Like mockingbirds, Boo defends Scout. Atticus defends Tom. Yet the blue jay generally triumphs over the mockingbird in any backyard conflict. Bullies not only want their own turf but want it all.
It’s easy for Atticus, a lawyer tasked with defending a black man, to loathe the blue jay’s behavior; it would be a part of his nature to loath a bully. And to an Alabama country girl who spent most of her time outdoors, Harper would have witnessed the interaction between these birds as a child and reflected on it as an adult novelist.
Killing all the blue jays “if you can” is no solution to bullying birds or people, of course, but it highlights Atticus’ character. There will always be bullies. Nonetheless, saying “if you can” shows that it is an impossible task.