Why is Heck Tate significant to To Kill a Mockingbird?
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Heck Tate, is the sheriff in the town of Maycomb where Atticus, Jem, and Scout live. He investigates the murder of Mr. Ewell and decides he will not prosecute. Instead he makes the decision to let it be an accident and leave it at that. He is important because he is the symbol of justice that had been denied to Tom Robinson. By taking a personal stand to make the decision of not having Boo charged he is also indicating that Boo would probably not have a fair trial much in the same way that Tom did not have a fair trial. He is justice.
Sheriff Heck Tate also serves as an example of sensible male authority in Maycomb, much in the way Judge Taylor does. An obvious admirer and friend of Atticus Finch (though he always calls him "Mister" Finch), Sheriff Tate is apparently not highly educated, but he does not fall into the same realm as the Old Sarum crowd, either. He is fooled by the lynch mob, who send him on a wild goose chase and plan to abduct Tom Robinson from the jail, but the Old Sarum bunch are keenly aware that their plans can not succeed if Sheriff Tate is present at the jail. Oddly, he calls Bob Ewell by his first name (but not Atticus--is it out of disrespect?), but he also realizes that the Ewells lied on the witness stand, sending an innocent man to prison. Tate has the common sense to allow Atticus to take the shot at the mad dog; enough pride in his town to realize that Ewell's death is "a great service" to Maycomb; and the compassion to save Boo the torture of an inquiry. Though a minor character in TKAM, Harper Lee has created one with depth and pride in his work, and not a caricature of the bumbling Southern law enforcement bumpkin so prevalent in other lesser stories and films.
I agree with the previous posters. Heck Tate's role in the novel is connected mostly to two scenes, the shooting of the dog and the trial scene. In narrating the trial scene to us, Scout even conflates the two scenes. In the paragraph in chapter 21 beginning "But I must have been reasonably awake," Scout makes a number of clear connections between her father shooting the dog and (I suppose) her hope that her father will be equally successful in defeating the jury's racism.
I don't agree with the posters, though, that Tate is the embodiment of justice or compassion. He certainly does represent the law in the town of Maycomb, but he doesn't enforce the law equally and impartially. He purposefully hushes up a murder because he doesn't care one bit for the person murdered. That's not really justice, in my view, at least not the "blind" kind that's held up as our ideal.
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