Comment on Atticus's explanation of rape in chapter 14 of To Kill a Mockingbird. How suitable is this as an answer to Scout?

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bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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When Atticus is forced to answer a very adult question delivered by his daughter in Chapter 14 of to Kill a Mockingbird, he gives her a forthright answer, just as he has preached to his brother, Jack. Scout doesn't seem to have a clue what Atticus's explanation of rape meant since she couldn't understand why Calpurnia wouldn't answer her question in the first place. Scout already knew that Tom Robinson had been charged with rape--she just didn't know what the word meant. When she asked Calpurnia, the housekeeper told her to ask Atticus. When Scout finally got around to questioning Atticus,

     He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.
     "Well if that's all it is why did Calpurnia dry me up when I asked her what it was?"

 

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amarang9's profile pic

amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Atticus gives her a technical definition, probably something more like a legal definition. Atticus hardly ever shies away from giving his children the truth about things. He wants them to understand the world as it really is. That is why he explains things quite clearly. This is also why he tries to get the children to consider the perspectives of other people. This helps them to understand the different social aspects of Maycomb, the class structure, and why people think and act the way they do. But when Atticus gives Scout this definition, it does seem like he is trying to give her an answer that she won't understand and therefore will lose interest. Perhaps this is one time when he thinks she is too young to be able to handle or understand the shock of what rape is. She clearly doesn't understand because she says "Well if that’s all it is why did Calpurnia dry me up when I asked her what it was?" Scout does not think rape is such a big deal. So, either Atticus intended to confuse Scout and succeeded so that he might broach the subject when Scout is older and more mature. Or, maybe he intended to eventually clarify the definition and didn't get a chance. 

Later, when the children are sitting with Reverend Sykes at the trial, Jem explains rape and says it is over Scout's head. She indignantly replies that she knows exactly what he's talking about. But here again, it isn't clear that she does fully understand. It's difficult to what a suitable answer from Atticus should be. Atticus's response was true and honest but he may have been using technical language in order to avoid the subject. 

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mlsldy3's profile pic

mlsldy3 | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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One of the things I love about Atticus is the way he is with his children. He tries to shield them as best he can, but he is also extremely honest with them. If they have a question then he will answer it truthfully. When Scout wants to know what rape is, Atticus explains it to her in the terms he thinks she will understand. 

"He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent."

Scout is very mature for her age. She might not understand the full meaning of what rape is, but she gets the general idea. I think it is a very suitable answer for Scout. Atticus is always honest with his kids. He wants them to know the truth about things and what the right thing for people to do is. He knows that Jem and Scout are going to hear some really ugly things at school about him taking the case of Tom Robinson. Atticus wants to make sure that Jem and Scout hear the truth from him and nobody else. He always tells his kids to come to him with questions. Atticus is right to answer Scout in the way he does.

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tinicraw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In chapter 9, Atticus is talking with his brother Jack about how to talk to children when they ask a difficult question. He basically tells him not to avoid the subject, but to directly state the answer for the child. Atticus says that this is the best way to handle any question because children "can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles 'em" (87). Thus, Atticus's philosophy is to directly answer children when they ask questions. When Scout asks for the definition of rape, that's exactly what she gets. Atticus gives her the legal definition of rape as follows:

"He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent" (135).

Scout clearly doesn't understand this definition because she says, "Well if that's all it is why did Calpurnia dry me up when I asked her what it was?"

Atticus does not get an opportunity to answer Scout. Nor does he get the chance to explain rape to her any further because Aunt Alexandra gets upset when she finds out that the kids went to Calpurnia's church. It's ironic because Atticus may have felt relieved that the topic shifted to the day that the children went to the black community's church. This way, he was able to get out of the uncomfortable conversation about rape with his daughter.

As it stands, Atticus stayed true to what he said to his brother about answering children when they ask difficult questions. Atticus gave Scout a direct and honest answer to her question. Fortunately for both of them, Scout didn't know what he was talking about anyway. Atticus was able to answer her directly, without evasion, and Scout's innocence was still protected because he didn't have to go into any more detail about it.

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