How Does Harper Lee Create Mood and Atmosphere in the Trial Scene?

Table of Content

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a novel written by Harper Lee during the Great Depression era in the 1930’s. The story resembles that of a real case, in which a group of black men were falsely accused of raping two white girls, and were sentenced to death – in this novel, Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. During the trial scene of Tom Robinson’s case, Lee uses various techniques, such as imagery, metaphors, irony, and false hope, to create mood and tension.

Before the trial, the mood is already one of danger, threat, and tension. The mood is created during the scene in which the mob approaches Atticus is the holding cell, inside which is Tom Robinson. As the mob approaches, the line, “Shadows became substance as light revealed solid shapes moving towards the jail door.” shows how the men appear from the darkness, with an eerie and intimidating presence – the way they are described as ‘moving towards’ creates a sense of approaching danger, and a mood of uncertainty and tension. As the mob proceeds to carry out their aim, the mood of tension is further enforced, in the line, “…and the men talked in near-whispers.” The atmosphere is one of apparent danger and fear, yet there is a sense of irony, in that the men, who are focused on lynching Tom Robinson, only talk in whispers once they have been told by Atticus that Tom ‘is sleeping’. An additional line, which evokes a mood of fear, is when Scout makes her way through the mob to find Atticus, and sees Atticus’ reaction: “A flash of plain fear…” Atticus, who is a normally calm and rational man, is seldom seen displaying such emotion, which shows how the mob had the ability to intimidate.

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront

In contrast to the mood of tension, however, just before the trial begins, the mood is jocund and bright – it is described as a ‘holiday mood’, and a ‘gala occasion’. The line, “wagons were parked under every available tree”, portrays the ‘popularity’ of the trial. Harper Lee uses this scene as a relief from the approaching solemn and tense mood, of the trial itself.

At the start of the trial, there is a strong feeling of tension and apprehension, and this is created is various ways. The first witness to be questioned is Heck Tate, who is the local sheriff – at the beginning of his questioning, there is a slight element of uncertainty, which creates a nervous and tense atmosphere for the reader. When he changes his mind as to which side Mayella Ewell’s bruises were on, it gives a sense that he is unsure. Atticus also contributes significantly to the atmosphere; his questioning is rapid and intense, which creates a tense and exciting mood.

After Heck Tate describes how he found Mayella, Judge Taylor plays a part in creating mood – Judge Taylor “looked up as if he were expecting an objection”, but the fact that “Atticus was quiet” creates a sense of confusion as to why there was no objection, and in turn, this creates further tension. There are also varied tones of voice from Atticus during the scene – for example, he starts off with a plain voice, but soon after, he speaks with “an edge to his voice”. There is apparent contrast, in that Atticus’ personality in the courtroom is different to that of when he is at home being a father. However, although there is still tension at the beginning, the mood is calm and unthreatening, and Scout says that it is “…dull; nobody had thundered… there was no drama; a grave disappointment.” This line shows that people, especially Scout with her naivety, expect for there to be excitement and climax from the output. As the scene progresses, however, the case becomes more interesting.

As the accounts are given from Heck Tate, Bob and Mayella Ewell, and Tom Robinson, various horrific and sensational details of the case unfold. One of the first horrific details of the case are the injuries sustained by Mayella: Heck Tate describes Mayella as “pretty well beat up” and “mighty banged up”, with “definite finger marks on her gullet”. These quotes give a vivid picture as to how bad the injuries inflicted upon Mayella were – the images created give a sense of fear and nerves, but a sense of curiosity because it is uncertain how the case will turn out. Mayella also describes in her statement, how Tom “got her around the neck, cussing and saying dirt.” – this is horrific to the reader, as they know that Mayella is lying. When Bob Ewell is being questioned, he describes how he found Mayella “screamin’ like a stuck hog” – this is horrific for the reader, as Mayella is his daughter, and it is an unexpected and brutal way to describe her state. Harper Lee uses such harsh and inflammatory description to create a mood of anger and tension, and to evoke emotion from the reader.

At various points in the trial scene, Harper Lee describes the jury and spectators, and their actions. One of the first things shown about the spectators, is that they’re so keen to witness the trial – Reverend Sykes tells Jem and Scout that “There’s not a seat downstairs”, which shows that it is overcrowded, as does the quote, “They squeezed past…” It is also shown that the spectators are very attentive, as they change suddenly after hearing Bob Ewell’s account – it “turned happy picnickers into a sulky, tense, murmuring crowd.” Another line that shows the interest and observant the spectators are, “one man leaning forward with his hands over the railing”, suggesting that the ‘crowd’ are captivated by what is unfolding. At recess, “people weren’t moving”, which again suggests the crowd are captivated and do not want to miss any important happenings when the trial resumes. However, the white crowd of spectators “were as relaxed as Judge Taylor”, which gives the slight impression that they almost know what is going to happen. This creates a tense, but interesting mood.

One of the key characters during the trial scenes is Judge Taylor. He ultimately controls what happens during the trial, but he is described as a man who “ran his court with alarming informality”, and who “sometimes propped his feet up” and “often cleaned his fingernails with his pocket knife”. This gives the impression that he does not show the high authority that he has, as the traditional court judge is extremely formal, and looks to be respected. When Judge Taylor is described as a “sleepy old shark”, he is portrayed as someone who doesn’t seem to be doing an awful lot – the word “sleepy” gives the impression that he is almost lazy in what he does. In contrast, however, in this quote, the word “shark” shows that he still has an intimidating presence in the courtroom, and he can ‘pounce’ at the key time. Harper Lee uses various words to show how Judge Taylor’s tone of voice varies significantly, depending on the situation; for example, when addressing Bob Ewell, he uses “tones of good will”, and he “looked benignly at the witness”; however, when Link Deas shouts out from the crowd suddenly, supporting Tom Robinson, Judge Taylor is suddenly “wide awake and roaring”. This shows how he can change suddenly to create dramatic moments, and this creates an unsettled and tense atmosphere.

Atticus Finch plays a primary role in creating mood and tension during the trial scenes. He is fighting to clear a Negro’s (Tom Robinson’s) name, which is something unheard of in society. When questioning the witnesses, he uses a calm and neutral tone, and he has slowness and deliberation to his movements. He is described as speaking “dryly”, and he “could make a rape case as dry as a sermon” – he is shown to be a calm and rational man when Scout says she’s “never heard Atticus raise his voice in my life”. However, in the questioning of Heck Tate, Atticus has “an edge to his voice”, which shows he uses various tones of voice to display his seriousness and the necessity of getting all the details of the case.

The mood starts off calm, with the questions being relatively general – however, as the scene progresses, the tension builds, as the questions become more pertinent. The relevance of the questions asked by Atticus is not always apparent, yet this creates a mood of apprehension; for example, when Atticus asks Bob Ewell, “Will you write your name and show us?”, the question seems immaterial, yet when the reader sees the relevance of it, there is a sense of satisfaction. In contrast to the calm mood, which Atticus displays for the most part of the trial scene, there is an eventual change, in which he becomes more stinging and forceful in his attack – he takes on a more “arid, detached professional voice”, and he starts to repeat his questions quickly. This change causes his voice to lose it’s original ‘comfortableness’, which in turn creates a mood of nervousness, anxiety, and tension.

During the trial, Atticus also uses various interrogation methods. At the beginning of the trial, he uses short, quick fire questions, to determine the basic details of the supposed ‘rape’. For example, when questioning Heck Tate, he asks questions such as “What night, sir?”, “Did you go?”, and “And what did you find?”. During the same questioning, he starts to use repetition of key questions; when he asks Heck “Did you call a doctor, Sheriff?”, Heck replies, “No sir,” Even though, to the reader, this seems like a satisfactory answer to the question, Atticus goes on to repeat it.

Cite this page

How Does Harper Lee Create Mood and Atmosphere in the Trial Scene?. (2017, Oct 27). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront