Empathy and Onomatopoeia in To Kill a Mockingbird: Examples & Quotes

EMPATHY Empathy is defined as having the ability to share in the way a person feels. When someone feels empathy toward another human being they are, in effect, letting them know that they have walked in their shoes. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is held up as the hallmark of what it means to have empathy and, as a parent, he makes it his goal to instill that same feeling in his children, Scout and Jem.
Fine Upstanding Gentleman Atticus Finch is known around town as an honest, kind, and dedicated lawyer. He is considerate of others’ feelings, and his sense of morality is strong and all-encompassing. Atticus is able and willing to put himself in the shoes of others, and he goes out of his way to ensure that their feelings are spared when times get tough. We see a wonderful example of his inordinate kindness and empathy in his dealing with Mr. Cunningham, a poor client who could not afford to pay his bills in the traditional way. He would leave goods on the porch as payment for the work Atticus had done: ‘a load of stove wood in the back yard. Later a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps.’Atticus, being the gentleman he was, never acknowledged the payments from Mr. Cunningham. He knew that a conversation would only serve to embarrass him and emphasize the fact that he was poor and couldn’t pay. Atticus tried to instill this understanding in Scout, when she mistakenly insisted that Atticus speak to Mr. Cunningham on the porch when he was trying to leave his payment. Atticus gently lets Scout know that in the future it is better to let him leave his payments anonymously.There is no denying Atticus’ sense of empathy when he chooses to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Even though his decision will cause him and his family grief, Atticus cannot refuse helping this man who needs his abilities so badly. He explains the situation to Scout: ‘if I didn’t I couldn’t hold my head up in town.’ Later Atticus tells his brother that if he doesn’t take the case of defending Tom he wouldn’t be able to face Scout and Jem.Because Atticus has such a good heart and a strong conscious, he extends his ability to walk in the shoes of others to Bob Ewell, the father of Mayella Ewell, the woman who accused Tom Robinson. Atticus understands the anger and shame that lives inside Ewell. He knows that it stems from shame and embarrassment. When Bob Ewell tries to shame him by spitting on him, Atticus doesn’t get angry. He tells Jem, ‘I destroyed his last shred of credibility… So, if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take.’ Atticus works tirelessly as a parent to help his children learn lessons of humility, kindness, and empathy, and he is successful in his task.
Apple Doesn’t Fall Far: Scout In the beginning of the novel, we see that Scout has much to learn about empathy. She has little tolerance for people and she takes great pleasure in making fun of others. She makes fun of Walter Cunningham, who is poor. She invited Walter to lunch, and when his manners are horrid, she can’t hold her tongue. She ridicules him, and Calpurnia, the Finches’ housekeeper, has something to say about it: ‘Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house’s yo’ company, and don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty!’We see Calpurnia and Atticus striving to help Scout develop the traits that will set her on the right path. They encourage her to try to understand other people, rather than make fun of them. Atticus tells her that in order to truly understand another human being you must, ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it.’By the end of the book we see a remarkable change in Scout. She realized that Boo Radley, someone she used to be afraid of and make fun of, is someone she can try to understand. As she stands on his porch, she understands, for the first time, that his world is very small. Boo Radley had given the Finch children the ultimate act of love and friendship. He had protected them from harm. Scout realized that she had been wrong, and more importantly she had not been a good neighbor. ‘Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it…’
Apple Doesn’t Fall Far: Jem Jem learns to feel what others are feeling as he faces situations that eat at his conscience or his previous understanding of a situation. When Jem watches Atticus take care of the mad dog, he begins to see his father in a new light. Where he once thought of his father as weak, he now sees that he is strong. In fact, he feels a connection that is new and exciting to him. He tells Scout, ‘Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!’Jem is beginning to allow himself to see others with empathy and concern. He is growing up, and he’s beginning to realize that the world is often cruel, unfair and complicated. When Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is in shock. He can’t begin to fathom how that happened. He asks Atticus, ‘How could they do that?’ In his heart of hearts he knows that Tom is innocent of the charges, and as such, he never thought, not in his wildest dreams, that they would convict him. His pain at the reality of the situation is visible and strong. It is this realization that brings him to tears. The injustice of life is difficult to handle.
The Many Uses of Onomatopoeia Take a moment to think about the last time something startled you. Did you make a noise when it happened? Maybe you SCREAMED. Or perhaps you SQUEALED. You may have even SHRIEKED. When those noises came from your mouth, they may not have seemed like anything important. After all, a scream or a squeal or a shriek is just a sound, right? On paper, however, those sounds are something much more!In literature, ‘scream’, ‘squeal’, and ‘shriek’ are a special type of literary device called onomatopoeia, a term used when a word sounds like the noise it describes. Words like ‘meow’ and ‘woof’ describe the noises that cats and dogs make, but they also sound an awful lot like the noises themselves.Authors use onomatopoeia for a number of reasons. For starters, onomatopoeia is practical. Sometimes it’s important for the reader to know how something (or someone) in a story sounds. Authors also use onomatopoeia to create a certain mood or tone that will influence how the reader feels. For example, if a character whispers, ‘Follow me’, this has a much different effect than if the character shouts it!
Onomatopoeia in To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee uses onomatopoeia throughout her novel To Kill a Mockingbird in a way that helps readers connect with the story. Like other authors, she uses onomatopoeia not only to describe the sounds the characters make and hear in the story, but also to change the mood and tone of the novel.
Onomatopoeia to Describe How Objects Sound As mentioned before, onomatopoeia words frequently describe a sound an object makes while also sounding like that particular object at the same time.When Jem Finch prowls around the Radley property, Scout waits with baited breath: ‘I waited until it was time to worry and listened for Mr. Radley’s shotgun. Then I thought I heard the back fence squeak. It was wishful thinking.’ In this instance, the word ‘squeak’ describes the sound the fence makes and, when pronounced, sounds like the actual noise itself.Later in the novel, Lee uses onomatopoeia to describe the sound of Jem’s voice and the sound of the telephone: ‘Suddenly Jem screamed, ‘Atticus, the telephone’s ringing!’ The word ‘screamed’ reflects the way in which Jem is speaking, while ‘ringing’ sounds very similar to the noise a telephone makes when it alerts people that there’s an incoming phone call.
Onomatopoeia to Mimic Character Sounds One of the most common ways that Harper Lee uses onomatopoeia in To Kill a Mockingbird is to mimic the sounds that the characters make that are not actual words. While Scout and Jem fight with one another, Scout makes a loud noise of frustration: ‘Ain’t so high and mighty now, are you!’ I screamed, sailing in again…’Taah!’ I said at Jem. He was being sent to bed at my bedtime.’ As a reader, you know that ‘taah’ isn’t a real world, but this use of onomatopoeia helps you to imagine Scout’s victory noise as Jem is punished.Lee uses onomatopoeia in the following example to mimic the ‘be quiet’ noise that many people make or are at least familiar with: ‘He’s just gone over the evidence,’ Jem whispered, ‘and we’re gonna win, Scout. I don’t see how we can’t…Sh-h. Nothing new, just the usual. Hush now.’It’s very likely that someone has said ‘sh-h’ to you at some point in your life to remind you to quiet down. While ‘sh-h’ isn’t a real word, ‘hush’ is. This is also considered an onomatopoeia because it sounds a lot like the way people sound when they speak in hushed tones.
Onomatopoeia to Set the Mood and Reflect Emotions Harper Lee also uses onomatopoeia to change the mood in a scene or to reflect character emotions. In the following example, onomatopoeia is used to increase suspense and tension between Atticus and Scout: ‘This was Atticus’s dangerous question. ‘Do you really think you want to move there, Scout?’ Bam, bam, bam, and the checkerboard was swept clean of my men.’Use of the word ‘dangerous’ heightens the reader’s sense of expectation as they wait for Atticus’s next move. Repetition of the word ‘bam’ acts as the climax of Atticus’s actions and helps readers to imagine him sweeping the checkerboard.The author also uses onomatopoeia to show how a character feels. When Aunt Alexandra is upset that Atticus goes against her wishes, she sews angrily: ‘Punk, punk, punk, her needle broke the taught circle. She stopped, and pulled the cloth tighter: punk-punk-punk. She was furious.’ The ‘punk’ noise of the needle punctuates Aunt Alexandra’s anger and frustration.

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