Punishment has existed in human civilization for centuries, frequently, its purpose is criminal justice. A form of punishment, believed to be a solution to crime, is imprisonment. Throughout most of human history this has been defined as someone being contained in an area that they cannot get out of and their freedom is greatly reduced. Although severe, this has potential for good; people who commit serious crimes such as murder, attempted murder, and other major atrocities, should be secluded from society in order to keep communities safe. Although, in past centuries, crimes like witchcraft and other absurd offenses have faced needless discipline. In cases like these, when one is subjected to prejudice or has done no wrong and they are still jailed, incarceration becomes oppressive. In the wistful poem, “Caged Bird,” by Maya Angelou, and the historical-fiction novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, both authors utilize the symbol of an imprisoned bird to explore the theme of oppression.
In both works, at the two authors’ initial presentation of the symbol of a confined bird, the bird is presented as wrongfully imprisoned and thus, oppressed. In, To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Tom Robinson, is likened to a jailed bird. This becomes clear when the racist mob finally leaves the prison that Tom is being held in and Lee writes, “A soft husky voice came from the darkness above: ‘They gone?’” and Atticus later responds, “‘Get some sleep, Tom. They won’t bother you any more’” (Lee 206). Tom represents a mockingbird since he is an innocent man and thus, has done no harm as mockingbirds do no harm. His innocence is shown by Atticus saying, “they won’t bother you any more,” he believes Tom is has been unjustifiably confined and it is sinful to harass him. Furthermore, his speech “came from the darkness above,” making his unfair seclusion from society and as a result, suffering, manifest. Likewise, the caged bird has been cruelly confined and its freedom has also been taken away. In the caged bird’s first stanza, this is demonstrated, as Angelou asserts, “But a bird that stalks / down his narrow cage / can seldom see through / his bars of rage / his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied” (Angelou l. 8-13). The bird can barely move around since he is in a “narrow cage.” Also, birds are made to fly in the sky, but a caged bird cannot do this since “his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied.” Moreover, he is unaware of the world around him since he “can seldom see through” his cage. Thus, the opening display of both the caged bird and Tom Robinson strongly indicates that they should not be confined and that they are being exploited.
In both works, the final exhibit of the imprisoned bird symbolization shows both characters wanting freedom and the same message about oppression becomes evident. However, this message is achieved by the characters distinct attempts at freedom. This is demonstrated as Tom Robinson failed to explain his way to acquittal at the trial and tried something else. Tom’s final endeavor for freedom is revealed when Atticus explains, “‘They shot him,’ said Atticus. ‘He was running. It was during their exercise period. They said he just broke into a blind raving charge at the fence and started climbing over’” (Lee 315). Tom figured that if he had gotten the appeal, due to racism, he would get convicted again and face capital punishment. He concluded he had no choice but to brake “into a blind raving charge at the fence.” Unfortunately, he was shot since there were racist guards all around him, they did not care about his life, shown by them having shot him seventeen times. This is crucial because it proves the theme that a mockingbird is defenseless and therefore, it is up to higher authorities to not harm it. Since Tom was oppressed due to racism, it was impossible for him to obtain freedom because people wanted to harm him. The same way freedom was unobtainable for Tom and all he could do was talk and run for it, it was too, for the caged bird. Angelou makes this clear as she repeats the third stanza in the final stanza when she writes, “The caged bird sings / with a fearful trill / of things unknown / but longed for still / and his tune is heard / on the distant hill” (Angelou l. 31-36). The fact this is a repeated stanza shows the caged bird is stuck in an inescapable cycle, making freedom hopeless. The bird tried to sing and the phrase, “with a fearful trill” shows this was a desperate shriek for freedom. The quote, “his tune is heard on the distant hill” reveals that someone far away hears this cry but chooses not to help him and he is stuck. Therefore, both characters’ efforts for freedom conveys the theme that oppression is crippling and makes it futile to try to achieve freedom.
In the two works, the poem, “Caged Bird,” by Maya Angelou, and the Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, both authors use the symbol of an imprisoned bird to convey the theme of oppression. Today, even with citizens having more rights and freedoms, people who are incarcerated are still exploited. In the United States, there is over two and three tenths million people currently imprisoned and ninety percent of those people’s criminal cases did not go to trial. Even those who are innocent and accused of a crime may not go to trial because they rather take a plea deal than risk getting an extremely lengthier sentence. The company CoreCivic makes over a billion dollars in revenue every year from the jail population increasing. This is due to the thirteenth amendment, which asserts that slavery is abolished in the United States, except for those in prison. The abuse of prisoners is shown by the company Geo Group Incorporated, forcing labor, they were sued last November, and there not the only ones abusing their authority. Therefore, the criminal justice system is still oppressive and needs to be rethought.