This essay will identify issues outside of the primary theme of race that come to light during the court case in which Tom Robinson, a black man, is trialled and convicted for raping Mayella Ewell. Throughout the trial, significant action occurs both inside and outside the court room that draws attention to side-lined topics including the definition of courage, the loss of innocence, class relations, and expectation within society. To Kill A Mockingbird was set in the 1930’s, a turbulent decade characterised by struggles between world powers, racial prejudice and economic depression.
The aftermath of the Wall Street Crash in 1929 affected America particularly badly, and by the winter of 1932 they were in the depths of the greatest economic depression in their history. These historical events are reflected in the novel by the division within Maycomb’s society according to wealth and class, with families such as the Ewell’s epitomising the term ‘white trash’ and positioning at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Furthermore, despite the American government’s abolition of slavery in 1848, racism was as strong as ever in the Southern States.
The black people were forced into racial segregation in schools, public transport and churches. Stemming from this racial prejudice comes a level of expectation that different people in society believe they must adhere too as a result of the segregation and racial prejudice engrained into society. This is shadowed in the book by the minor character of Dolphus Raymond, a drunken white man deemed an outsider by societies norms. All of the action that takes place within To Kill A Mockingbird is concentrated in the fictional county of Maycomb, which can be seen as a microcosm dissecting important issues present in the wider Southern America.
The trial in many ways is the most important and dramatic sequence in the novel, as although the trial targets Tom Robinson, in a metaphoric sense it is in fact the entire county of Maycomb that are on trial. Despite Tom’s conviction, the trial does show a small progression within Maycomb, with the jury taking such a long time to make their decision constituting a sign of positive advancement in racial relations, with Miss Maudie stating “it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step. ”
This “step” is achieved through the books definition of courage, embodied through the character of Mrs Dubose, a ying old woman who embarks on the brave task of facing her addiction to morphine before reaching her end. According to Atticus, Mrs Dubose’s decision shows the possession of “real courage… when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. ” It is this attitude that foreshadows and fittingly describes Atticus’s own approach to the Tom Robinson case. It is clear in the novel that even before taking on Tom Robinson’s case, the lawyer knew that he would fail to acquit the accused of his charges because of the rigid prejudicial outlook innate within Maycomb’s inhabitants.
Thomas Shaffer, argues that Atticus shows us precisely that what matters in professional ethics is character rather than moral principle which is highlighted by Atticus’s fights to prove Tom’s innocence to the community, even though he knows it will not be acted upon. While Atticus eventually loses the court case, it his courage and steely determination to see it through until the end that successfully reveals the injustice of a stratified society that confines the blacks to a “coloured balcony”. Furthermore, the involvement of the Ewell family in the trial also highlights issues of class relations within Maycomb County.
The term “white trash” is a pejorative term particularly used in rural Southern America, to describe a collection of lower class people who live by degraded standards. The term suggests outcasts from a respectable society living on the fringes of the social order who are seen as dangerous because they may be of a criminal nature without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral. The audience are aware from the beginning of the novel that the Ewell family epitomise “white trash” from Burrell Ewell’s refusal to go to school, and his ability to escape the legal system.
Moreover, their home behind the town garbage dump in a tin-roofed cabin adheres to the characteristic of ‘living on the outside of town’ and highlights their social and physical segregation from the more respectable members of the community. Their position at the bottom of the social hierarchy is substantiated by Mayella Ewell’s section of the trial – the young girl believes that Atticus is trying to make a fool of her by labelling her as “Miss” conveying her lack of social skills as a result of her family’s failure to integrate into society.
Moreover, the implication that Bob Ewell abuses his daughter creates a perception of him as being violent and criminal, two characteristics that are of course brought to light in the latter parts of the novel. Overall, this highlights that Maycomb County (and the wider South) are not just segregated by race, but also by class. The sad reality however, is that in the racist world of Maycomb, even the Ewell’s have the power to destroy an innocent man. This leads onto a further issue that is at stake throughout the trial: the threat posed to innocence by evil. This theme is revealed primarily through the characters of Tom Robinson and Jem Finch.
The audience are made aware that Tom is an innocent man who has been wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit. This depicts the evil attack of social prejudice on an unoffending man, guilty only of the colour of his skin. Tom Robinson is not prepared for the evil that he encounters, and this consequently leads to his downfall. This concept links to the title of the book “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which highlights that to destroy someone innocent purely for existing, is a sin. Furthermore, the trial also focuses around the loss of innocence of Jem and his movement into adulthood, linking to the Bildungsroman theme within the novel.
The Bildungsroman genre is an example of “the coming of age” novel, and is evident in the novel from the children’s journey from ignorance to enlightenment. Hereby, Jem witnessing the harsh reality of life revealed by the trial is seen as a necessary growth point that his character must go through in order to reach maturity, summarising the transition from a perspective of childhood innocence, to a more adult perspective in which Jem has confronted evil and must incorporate it into his understanding of the world.
This shift is apparent in the trial scene after Atticus reveals to the jury that Bob Ewell is a left-handed man, and that a left-handed man would be more likely to leave bruises on the right side of a girls face. Jem, still clinging to his youthful illusions about life working according to concepts of fairness, doesn’t understand that his father’s efforts will be in vain, commenting “We’ve got him. ” After Tom is found to be guilty, Jem’s hopes are shattered as he cries over the injustice of the verdict. His emergence into a more adulthood perspective is highlighted by his conversation with Miss Maudie, where he reveals that he sed to think that the people of Maycomb were the best in the world, but having witnessed the trial, he doesn’t think so anymore.
Ultimately, a final issue brought to light amidst the action of the trial, is the levels of expectation that people are pressured by as a result of the class and racial issues present in Maycomb. Dolphus Raymond’s attendance at the trial is accompanied by Jem’s description of his background – that he is a drunk who had several children by a black woman even though he was from a rich and respectable family.
As the prosecution begins to question Tom Robinson, the action is diverted from the courtroom as Dill begins to cry resulting in Scout leading him outside where they encounter the mysterious character of Mr Raymond. It is revealed that he is in actual fact pretending to drink alcohol from the paper bag to provide the white people with an explanation for his lifestyle: “When I come to town… if I weave a little and drink out of this sack, folks can say Dolphus Raymond’s in the clutches of whiskey—that’s why he won’t change his ways. He can’t help himself, that’s why he lives the way he does”.
This highlights that Dolphus Raymond does care very much about what people think of him, and believes that by stereotyping himself as a drunk, the other members of Maycomb county will find his behaviour excusable. The significance of his character is to forefront the pressures that society’s norms exhume on those who wish to be different – Dolphus Raymond simply prefers black people to whites, just as the white community simply dislike blacks with no valid explanation. In conclusion, it is clear that many other relevant issues to the time period occupy the trial at the heart of To Kill A Mockingbird as well as simply racial prejudice.
Courtney from Study Moose
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