Harper Lee has used symbolism rather extensively throughout the novel and a great deal of it refers to the problems of racism in the South during the early twentieth century. Symbolism can be traced in almost every important episode or event which formulates the story line. Right from the beginning Scout’s character and her outlook towards the behavior of the people in Maycomb county symbolizes a child’s innate curiosity towards life. It also portrays the untainted intelligence which helps her see beyond what is apparent.
Scout’s understanding of Walter Cunningham’s poverty and his self-pride is a prime example of this. Even Scout and Jem’s relationship with Calpurnia symbolizes the rare understanding of racism prevalent during those times.
Miss Maudie is a classic example of the enlightened woman living in an age of suppressed womanhood. Miss Maudie hates staying indoors and is always seen pottering around her garden, working on her flowerbeds. She understands Atticus’ need to fight against the racial prejudices and believes in him absolutely. When her house gets burnt down, instead of moping about it, she is back on her feet the next day, restoring her house and her garden. She is thus a symbol of strength and integrity.
Mrs. Dubose symbolizes the grit and determination of a woman, who though aware of the fact that she is going to die soon, wants to do so with all her wits about her. Her addiction to morphine is a negative factor and she attempts to overcome it appreciably.
Finally, the deepest symbolism conveyed is through the use of the concept of the mockingbird. The mockingbird is a symbol of everything that is harmless. They only make music for others to enjoy and to kill such a being is a sin. Both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are harmless individuals, who never intend to hurt a soul. Yet Tom’s life is lost, and this is like shooting a mockingbird. As Scout wisely says: to hurt Boo Radley too would be like killing a mockingbird. Thus the mockingbird has been used to symbolize the good and the harmless things in this world which should not be abused. As Mary Clare points out, the mockingbird is a symbol for two of the characters in the novel: Tom Robinson and Boo Radley.
In the novel, the people of Maycomb only know Boo Radley and Tom Robinson by what others say about them. According to a critic "Both of these characters do not really have their own ‘song’ in a sense, and therefore, are characterized by other people’s viewpoints."
Maycomb county comprises of a conglomeration of various sections of people, who live together in studied harmony. Their differences are noticeable, and therein lies the foundation for all trouble which emerges later on in the novel.
Outwardly, the community is divided into two sections: the white community and the black community. The blacks are simple, honest, hardworking folk, eking out a living by simple labor on the fields. They are god fearing and attend church regularly. Being uneducated, they repeat the hymns sung in the church, by rote. Though poor they have a sense of self-respect and pride and would never take anything from another without paying back in kind. When Atticus takes up Tom Robinson’s case, even though he loses the case, his kitchen is overflowing with food items; the blacks’ way of showing gratitude. Though Jem and Scout are white, they are treated with deference and respect when they visit their black church.
The white community is divided into two sections. One includes most of the citizens of the county, who are simple, yet well bred. They work hard, keep their houses clean and attend church regularly. At the same time, they are prone to indulge in idle gossip, and slander, and have a nose for prying into others’ affairs. Stephanie Crawford, with all her well-bred insolence, cannot help making snide comments at Atticus and his children.
There is an air of suppressed hypocrisy among many of these white citizens.
Another small segment of the white community comprises of what is called ‘white trash’. The Ewells are a part of this segment. These people, though white are worse off than the blacks. They are poor not because of circumstances but because of sheer laziness and lack of ambition. The children are filthy, have no manners, and even refuse to attend school. They are mean and hard and have no qualms about using their fists. Even the law has to be altered a little to maintain order in the society, for instance. This community is worse off than the poor but inherently good blacks, yet consider themselves superior to them because of the color of their skin.
There is another smaller segment, consisting of the Cunninghams. The Cunninghams are known never to take anything they cannot pay back, they manage with whatever they have, which isn’t much. When Scout’s teacher offers Walter Cunningham a quarter to buy lunch for himself, he refuses, and Scout has to explain to her the ways of the Cunninghams. When Mr. Cunningham cannot pay Atticus money for his legal help he sends sacks of hickory nuts, turnips and holly to him.
Evaluating all these sections, one can notice a marked similarity between the blacks and the Cunninghams. Though different in race and color, their attitude towards life, and importance to honesty and self-esteem, depicts them to be good people who deserve better than what is meted out to them by the society.
The Ewells, on the other hand, are the worst kind of people, who show no concern towards bettering themselves, and in fact show insolence towards the others.
All these distinct sections of people have been portrayed to bring forth the problem of racial prejudice to the fullest.