What does Atticus mean when he says "Don't fool yourselves-it's all adding up and one of these days, we're going to pay the bill for it." ?Page 221, Chapter 23 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

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James Kelley | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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I like what the previous posters have said, but I'm not sure that it's necessary to see Atticus' statement in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird as prophetic -- or at least not anymore prophetic than it is responsive (on the part of the author) to the dramatic enactments of racial tension across the South and the border states in the 1950s, the decade before the publication of Lee's novel.

Any decent Civil Rights timeline (see, for example, the two PBS links given below) will show a number of significant events, including, for example, the Supreme court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the internationally covered lynching of Emmett Till.

At least one critic has written convincingly about the parallels between the Till trial and the Robinson trial in the novel; the critic doesn't attempt to show that the real trial entirely influenced the fictional trial, but he does demonstrate how the extreme media coverage of this lynching (or perhaps a more local, less publicized but parallel case) may have inspired the author. See Chura, Patrick. "Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmett Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird." Southern Literary Journal. (June 2000): 1-26.

The final link given here is a solid lesson plan on the historical contexts of Lee's novel.

To me, Atticus' language -- the metaphor of the growing debt, much like his talk of the "sin" of killing a mockingbird -- seems at least a little religious in nature (in a popular Christian sense). It echoes the idea of someone writing in each person's ledger and each person having to give a full accounting in the end, only it applies not to the individual but to the society as a whole ("we").

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Chapter 23 of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, as Atticus and his son discuss the outcome of the trial of Tom Robinson, Jem mentions the injustice of the verdict based solely upon circumstantial evidence, his father tells him,

...The older you grow the more of it you'll see.  The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.

It is after this explanation that Atticus says "we're going to pay for it."  This statement reflects the Southern belief in the law of retribution: "What goes around, comes around," as the expression goes.  With his acute understanding of human nature, Atticus foresees the social revolution ahead in which civil rights will be enacted.  

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Atticus says this after the trial of Tom Robinson has ended.  He and Jem and Scout are discussing the trial.  Jem says that it was not fair and Atticus responds with the quote you cite.

What Atticus is saying is that the black people will rise up one day because of the way they are being treated.  When he says "it" he means all the bad treatment of the black people.  He says it's going to pile up until one day the black people will make the whites pay for it.


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mkcapen1 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Since the other editors addressed what is written in the book, I will address the inference of what was meant.  Atticus was aware that man can not continue to treat other men in an injustice and improper manner.  He was aware that times were changing and the progression of those changes would mean that the damages inflicted on others through racism would come back to bite them in the butt.  I find it very interesting  looking at the time when the book was written and all the events that followed.  The writer was somewhat of a fortune teller in her own right.

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