How does the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird create conflict?

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

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Conflicts abound surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson. Long before the trial begins, Jem and Scout become aware that many people in Maycomb are unhappy that Atticus has taken the case. It is a decision he had hoped to never make, since he knows that defending a black man accused of raping a white woman is a case he could not win. Some are upset because they know that Atticus will try his best to win the case; others, like his sister, Alexandra, are upset because of how it might affect the entire Finch family.

As the spectators enter the courtroom, the divisive nature that surrounds the trial becomes more evident: Black people must wait until after all of the white people enter; once inside, Negroes are segregated in the balcony. When the trial begins, Atticus determines that Mayella was hit by someone who "led almost exclusively with his left." He all but accuses Bob Ewell of beating his own daughter. Once Mayella takes the stand, she contradicts her own testimony during Atticus's questioning, and she eventually refuses to answer his queries. When Tom takes the stand, Atticus allows him to tell his story, but the prosecutor attacks his credibility, primarily along racial lines.

Author Harper Lee builds the tension steadily, beginning with Sheriff Tate's bland testimony, and followed by Bob Ewell's explosive revelation that he caught Tom "ruttin' on my Mayella." Mayella's time on the stand is highly emotional: She is reduced to tears, and Atticus is forced to abandon his instinctive manners of the Southern gentleman and attack Mayella's credibility--he "rained questions on her." When Tom's testimony presents an entirely different version of the events, the prosecutor's cross-examination is so emotional that Dill needs to take a break from the proceedings. The scene with Dolphus Raymond gives the reader a breather from the racially-charged testimony before Scout and Dill return for Atticus's dramatic summation. Lee reestablishes the tension in the courtroom during Atticus's speech and, later, as the spectators wait for the verdict from the jury--one that ignores the conflicting evidence and testimony but proves correct Atticus's prediction that Tom's word could not possibly be taken over the word of the Ewells. The fallout of the trial creates more conflicts: Jem no longer trusts juries or the people of Maycomb; Bob decides that revenge is in order; and Tom dies after deciding that he has little chance with white man's justice.


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