Trial of Tom Robinson to Bring Out the Themes in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

During Tom Robinson’s trial, many themes such as education and life lessons, growing up and innocence, prejudice and racism and courage are brought out.

The theme of education and life lessons is very important as the book revolves around Scout and Jem, and how they grow and mature over the course of the book. Throughout the period of the trial Jem and Scout learn a lot and their understanding of the situation in Maycomb develops. We can see Jem’s maturity from the phrase, “Mister-Jem,” because as you age you receive a higher status. Jem’s maturity continues to be shown with the line, “In addition to Jem’s newly developed characteristics, he had acquired a maddening air of wisdom,” we can observe that Jem is becoming a new person. This is also suggested through the phrase, “Oh, go on and leave me alone. I’m readin’ the paper.” He doesn’t spend much time with Scout anymore and is acting like a man, like Atticus. Furthermore, he makes logical contradictions to Aunt Alexandra’s beliefs about social standings, for example when Aunt Alexandra thinks that staying on a piece of land for a long time earned a family respect, Jem replies that this makes the Ewells respectable and that is stupid.

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Scout matures immensely throughout the trial scene and her understanding of situations improves. The quote, “which was a lie, she has but one must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them,” suggests that she knows to accept it and she learns to not throw a tantrum. This reflects her maturity of the trial further on. Scout is very comprehensive of what she is witnessing. The line, “Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you already know the answer to,” suggests that she was brought up with the knowledge of legal terms. Scout becomes very motherly or wife-like towards Atticus. She cares for him dearly. We can see this from the line, “Your stomach’s growling; you better take some soda.” This maturity is important as she is caring for Atticus especially during the time of the trial. Another time Scout shows maturity is when she takes Dill out. She explains Mr Gilmer’s behaviour to Dill, and shows she understands more of the trial than people think.

The theme of learning coincides with the themes of growing up and childhood innocence because all the life lessons Jem and Scout learn help them grow up, but in some cases shatter their innocence.

Tom Robinson is convicted purely because he is a black man and his accuser is white. The evidence is so powerfully in his favour, that race is clearly the single defining factor in the jury’s decision. The children are very disappointed with the jury’s verdict, and can’t understand the reason for the unfairness and prejudice. Jem has an epiphany once the jury have announced their verdict and that is when he realises how the world works, and how not everyone is kind-hearted. He and Scout are surrounded by all the people who try to make a real difference, such as Heck Tate and Miss Maudie, and they help him to understand these things and comfort him during this hard time of learning. The realization that there is true evil within their society shakes Jem to the core. He held a strong belief in the goodness of all people, but after the trial must re-evaluate his understanding of human nature and come to terms with disappointing realities of inequality, racism, and general unfairness. Scout also struggles to understand these things, but even following the trial is able to maintain her belief in the goodness of human nature as she is still young and naive.

Atticus fights against racism, and a few other townspeople are on his side, including Miss Maudie and Judge Taylor. Jem and Scout also believe in racial equality, but are obviously in the minority. When Atticus loses the trial, he tries to make his children understand that although he lost, he helped move along the cause of ending racism as evidenced by the jury’s lengthy deliberation period. Usually, such a trial would be decided before the trial had even begun just based on race.

The theme of the mockingbird comes out in this scene, with Tom Robinson as an example of a human “mockingbird”, representing true goodness and purity. The town commits the ultimate sin by finding him guilty and sentencing him to death. In effect, they have killed a mockingbird.

An example of Scout’s innocence is when she talks the lynch mob into leaving just by being friendly to Mr Cunningham. She didn’t understand what he was going to do and without realising it, she managed to shame him. She made him stand in Atticus’s shoes, causing him to remember he was a father and realise that he wouldn’t want this in front of his children.

Along with the themes of growing up and childhood innocence, there is also a theme of curiosity. Jem and Scout are always curious and inquisitive, and they spy on Atticus a lot. An example of this is when Heck Tate tries to warn Atticus about the lynch mob, Jem and Scout are eaves dropping on the conversation and later they follow Atticus to the jailhouse and confront the lynch mob. Atticus encourages the children to ask questions and does his best to answer them in a reasonable way, for example, when Scout asks what rape mean. Atticus replies “rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” Scouts immaturity reappears when the main question in court is asked, “Did you see the defendant having sexual intercourse with your daughter.” Here Scout realises what has happened because she had no knowledge of the term and concept of rape.

The trial of Tom Robinson helps the readers to understand the prejudice that black people face in Maycomb County. The themes of courage and prejudice reflect the trial of Tom Robinson who was racially and falsely accused of raping a white woman.

In the beginning of part 2, Calpurnia takes the children to the Black community church. The quote, “Negroes worshipped in it on Sundays and white men gambled in it on weekdays,” depicts the racial side of Maycomb and how racially prejudiced this community is. Furthermore, this quote also suggests that in Maycomb the black churches do not mean anything and they are more of a waste of space to the white people. However, when they were confronted by Lula, Jem and Scout found themselves in the minority and experienced racism themselves. This is significant because it shows that they know how it feels to be a victim of racism and it shows that racism is not just from white people towards black people, but it also works the other way round.

Despite this, the rest of the Negro community accepts Jem and Scout regardless of their race, showing compassions and understanding of equality. This highlights the differences between the black and white people because the white people would never welcome a Negro into their church, but the black community are tight-knit and supportive of those in needs like Tom Robinson. Going to church with Calpurnia also shows Jem and Scout how different the black peoples’ lives are because the Negro farmers take their children to work, they don’t play outside all day, there is a high illiteracy rate among the community and not many children go to school and there is a lot of poverty and this is all shown by the quote, “She was talking like the rest of them,” was said by Scout who is a child showing that even the children can recognise this clear division between the black and white people and also the effort it took to collect $10 for Helen. Although the Finch family is also poor materialistically, they are rich morally and therefore they are better off than the Negroes.

In the eyes of the white people the trial, “Was like a Saturday,” and was, “A gala occasion,” suggesting that they saw it as a big exciting event which had a convivial and joyful atmosphere. The black people treated it as a serious occasion. This difference in approach to the situation shows the difference in attitude between the black and white people. This really portrays the difference in racial status. Furthermore, we see more racial boundaries, “They waited patiently at the doors behind the white families,” the black people know their status is under the white people and this shows there are patient and accepting about it.

The black people are very aware of the fact that they are disrespected. Tom Robison says, “Mr Finch, if you were a nigger like me, you’d be scared too,” and he is emphasising how hard it is to be a black person in this situation and he knows there was little chance of success. The fact that he calls himself a nigger shows how society’s prejudice corrupts his own view of himself.

During the trial, the Ewells had an unfair advantage. They had white blood which was the most important thing. When Tom Robinson is questioned in the trial he seems very understanding of Mayella. The line, “Why, yes suh, I’d tip m’hat when I’d go by, and one day she asked me to come inside the fence and burst up a chiffarobe for her,” suggests that he is not bothered about race and he is respectful of her. He, like Atticus, believes in equality. Black people are exposed as those who are bad and commit evil, “The evil assumption- that all Negros lie, that all Negros are basically immoral beings,” Atticus says this in order to sweep away people’s assumption of the Black people. Furthermore, Tom says something which shocked the jury, “Yes suh. I felt sorry for her; she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em.” Mr Gilmer replied, “You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?”

The use of repetition is effective and shows that it should be the other way around. He shouldn’t be feeling pity over a white woman because it is not possible to be better than a white woman. This is taken as prejudice against Mayella and all the white people seated in the courtroom. It is unacceptable for a Black man to say that and this is shown through use of italics on the words “you” and “her”. This racial prejudice he faces from Mr Gilmer also shows the class prejudice as well. The reader feels much sympathy for Tom as he clearly has done nothing wrong, for a modern day black man to feel sorry for a white woman would be completely acceptable but here you can see the strong racial prejudice. Harper Lee shows many racial incidents in her novel but the way she shows that a black man isn’t allowed to feel sorry for a white woman really shows the racial prejudice and for a reader it’s so hard to comprehend. There is also racial prejudice the way Mr. Gilmer refers to Tom as ‘boy’ yet even though Mr. Gilmer is demeaning Tom, he constantly refers to him as ‘suh’, showing respect.

The dialect Harper Lee uses for Tom shows the barrier of language between black and educated white people, showing the reader their lack of education. However, Lee also uses dialect for the Ewells, ‘-I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella’ Lee uses the word ‘ruttin” and drops the ‘g’ to show the clear disgust that Bob Ewell has and that he talks worse than Tom Robinson showing the issue that black people were the same as white people if not better in some cases. A reader would feel much disgust at Bob Ewell and his use of language.

A further issue is the placing of mixed children. “They’re real sad,” this phrase proves the segregation in Maycomb. This phrase shows pathos towards the mixed children who don’t belong or are wanted anywhere as they have black and white blood in them. It all about how you look and your background, “He looked black to me.” Furthermore the quote, “but around here if you have one drop of Negro blood that makes you all black,” shows that you are not accepted even if you may look white but have a black background. This shows the criticality and hypocrisy of Maycomb’s society and the prejudice towards black people.

Another difference between the black and white communities is the way they react to the verdict of the trial. The white community start gossiping and they don’t particularly care that they have condemned a man to death for doing absolutely nothing wrong. The black community respect Atticus’s efforts even though he didn’t win the case and they understand how hard it was for him to take on Bob Ewell because he is white so Tom had lost the case before it had even begun. They brought gifts for Atticus and these meant a lot because the people are so poor that they had to give up a lot in order to give Atticus gifts.

Justice is a key theme during the trial of Tom Robinson. It links in with the theme of prejudice, because the system is corrupt and biased, and therefore is also prejudice towards Negros. When the trial is imminent, 2 groups of people visit Atticus. The first group wants Tom moved out of the county jail and the 2nd group wants to lynch him. Therefore both groups were trying to influence the judicial process. Atticus says that “every mob…is always made up of people you know,” showing that it was just ordinary people swept along by peer pressure.

During his testimony, Heck Tate realises that Tom couldn’t have raped Mayella Ewell, as the injuries she suffered would have been caused by a man with 2 able arms. He tries to help Atticus and Tom by giving away very useful information because he knows how difficult it will be for them to win the trial because the system is so biased towards white people and therefore flawed.

Jem and many of Atticus’s friends in Maycomb believe the Justice System is flawed. Jem believed it upheld morals and rights, but it let him down, so he also believes it is a failure. The quote “telling the truth is not cynical,” is very important because the whole book is based on it, from a child’s point of view because only children see the truth.

There is also a theme of courage throughout the book, but it is emphasised through the trial scene because so many of the characters need it, and show it. For example, Calpurnia needed courage to take 2 white children o a black church and stand up to the rest of the community, and Jem and Scout need courage to walk away and ignore insults towards their father, and Atticus puts his reputation at steak by defending Tom Robinson, a black man, in court.

This shows a great deal of courage, being another main theme of this book. Atticus believes in Tom’s innocence and will do anything to win the case. The phrase, “And you know what the truth is,” shows that Atticus is standing his ground and he believes that the truth is the most important thing. He goes against what the community thinks and defends a black. This takes courage and a vast amount of confidence. Atticus’ courage is noticed among everyone. The line, “Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him,” shows that even though he was appointed to defend Tom Robinson he will do anything to effectively defend him. He takes on this case with open arms ignoring the comments from the community. Atticus wants and chooses to defend him because he believes in Tom’s innocence. This line is again repeated, “Atticus aimed to defend him,” which emphasises this point. At the end of the trial, Atticus makes a long and thought-provoking speech to the jury, emphasising that race should not matter in their verdict.

Throughout this novel we can see the changes in behaviour and attitude from Jem and Scout. Jem is a very good superior model for Scout as he plays a similar role to a father in her life. Scout attitude maturity vastly as she empathises with Atticus and she looks after and cares for him. I think the main theme of this book is prejudice, mainly racial prejudice against the black people. The black people receive no respect but it is inspiring to see them dealing with their situation. Atticus Finch is a very inspirational character. He believed in Tom’s innocence and fought for his innocence in court. He risked his reputation which takes moral courage.

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Trial of Tom Robinson to Bring Out the Themes in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. (2017, Oct 27). Retrieved from