How does Harper Lee create atmosphere during the trial scenes of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Chapter 17 with detailed and vivid description, Harper Lee creates a tableaux of the momentous event that the trial of Tom Robinson becomes for the residents of Maycomb County; Scout describes the occasion as "like Saturday":

People from the south end of the county passed our house in a leisurely but steady stream.

Mr. Dolphus Raymond lurched by one his thoroughbred.... A bearded man in a wool hat drove them. "Yonder's some Mennonites,"...A wagon load of unusually stern-face citizens appeared. When they pointed to Miss Maudie Atkinson's yard, Miss Maudie herself came out on the porch...standing with arms akimbo,...We knew she wore a grin of uttermost wickedness.

When the driver quotes scripture, Miss Maudie returns with scripture; Scout remarks that they must have thought she quoted the Devil as they sped up.

With this description, Lee paints hypocrisy into her tableau as a strict religious sect that shuns the way of the world by not wearing buttons and by living a simplified life who, nevertheless, feel such worldly curiosity that they come to attend Robinson's trial. Of course, the Fundamentalists who heckle Miss Maudie epitomize this hypocrisy. And with a bold brush stroke of the underlying hypocrisy of the town, Mr. Dolphus Raymond lurches past on his fine horse.

Another phrase that suggests the spectacle of human curiosity for the misfortune of others and the circus that the trial is to become is Scout's "It was a gala occasion." The courthouse square is filled with people who set up a picnic: "Some people were gnawing on cold chicken and cold fried pork chops." Scout's use of the word gnawing is significant as there is the sense of a predatory animal. And, with the "Negroes [who] sat quietly in the sun and Mr. Raymond drinks from a bag with two yellow straws" the evil to be committed against Tom by the whites, is subtly foreshadowed by Lee's use of yellow, a color so often symbolic of evil.

Then, too, the reader cannot but notice the symbolism of this description of the courthouse:

But for the southporch, the Maycomb County courthouse was early Victorian,presenting an unoffensive vista when seen from the north. From the other side, however, Greek revival columns clashed with a big nineteenth-century clock tower housing a rusty unreliable instrument, a view indicating a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past.

Similarly, the old men of the Idlers' Club are "resentful of the interruption of their comfortable routine" hint at the community's desire to preserve the status quo, "Atticus aims to defend him. That's what I don't like about it." In addition, the turmoil and defeat to come inthe trial is suggested with Scout's recounting of the one time that Judge Taylor was "ever seen at a dead standstill in open court, and the Cunninghams stopped him."

In the trial scenes, Bob Ewell mirrors the Idlers' Club with his attitude. His moral and intellectual degeneracy is displayed in his speech as he describes Mayella "like a stuck hog inside the house--" and his reference to Tom as "that black n--- yonder ruttin' [like an animal] on my Mayella!" His eying of Atticus with suspicion also suggests the turmoil to come. Likewise, Mayella's display of ignorance and circumventions casta pall upon Tom's chances for justice as the trial is interrupted by frivolousness when she accuses Atticus of "sassing her." Then, Mr. Gilmer's prosecuting "almost reluctantly" furthers the dismal prospects for Tom.

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