Atticus says at the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird that "this case is as simple as black and white." What does he mean?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Atticus's quote during his final remarks in Chapter 20 has a double meaning. When Atticus says, "This case is as simple as black and white," he is referring to the racial aspect of the case, as well as Tom's obvious innocence (Lee 124). Throughout the trial, there was no evidence presented that would have proved that Tom Robinson was guilty of assaulting and raping Mayella Ewell. The prosecution's entire case was founded on a white woman's word against a black man's. In 1930s Alabama, a white person's word was always taken over a black person's testimony because of the racial prejudice. Atticus realizes that he is defending Tom in front of a prejudiced jury and that the lack of evidence has no bearing on the outcome of the trial. Atticus pleads with the jury to judge the case without prejudice, but he cannot convince the jury of Tom's innocence.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Atticus has known since the day he took the case that the defense of Tom Robinson was not winnable. He tells his brother Jack (in Chapter 9) that

"The jury couldn't possibly be expected to take Tom Robinson's word agains the Ewells'--"

The case boils down to Tom's word against that of Mayella and Bob Ewell. Although the Ewells are the "disgrace of Maycomb," they are white and Tom is black, and in 1930s Alabama, the word of a white person is always believed over that of a black person.

There is actually a double meaning in Atticus' "black and white" statement. In one sense, he means that the case is "cut and dried": The facts seem obvious. Atticus has seemingly proved that Mayella's attacker must have been left-handed (as is Bob Ewell), and Tom cannot use his left arm, which is twelve inches shorter than his right. Bob and Mayella's testimony conflict with one another, and Mayella changed her story several times while on the witness stand. Tom seems to tell his story truthfully and his testimony seems plausible; the Ewells' testimony does not. But, as Atticus knows, the trial all boils down to a white woman charging a black man with rape, and even Atticus can't convince this jury to be colorblind in this case.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Atticus simply means that the case is pretty straightforward. The prosecution in the trial of Tom Robinson hasn't offered a single shred of credible evidence to prove that the defendant is guilty. In fact, Tom's physically incapable of committing the crimes for which he's been accused, on account of his disability. So Atticus wants to keep things as simple for the jury as he possibly can: there's more than just reasonable doubt about the prosecution case, and so Tom Robinson must be acquitted.

The members of the jury do indeed see the case as black and white, but not in the sense that Atticus means it. Their understanding is much more literal; a black man has been accused of raping and beating a white woman, and in this neck of the woods, that's tantamount to a conviction. The problem is not that the jury don't see the case as simple and straightforward; on the contrary, they do. It's just that their idea of simplicity is related, not to the facts of the case, as Atticus would want it to be, but to the respective skin colors of the victim and the defendant.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To say something is a case of black and white is to say something is clear and beyond a shadow of doubt. In other words, there is no ambiguity and confusion.

The case that takes center stage in To Kill a Mockingbird is such a case. It is absolutely clear that Tom Robinson is innocent. It is beyond a shadow of doubt. Not only is Tom a good man with unassailable character, but due to a childhood injury, he is also unable to use his left arm. He could not have beaten Mayella.

On the other hand, Mayella's father, Bob Ewell, has a temper and is a drunk. He is the one who beat her. Tom even witnessed it. In this sense, all evidence says that Tom is innocent and Bob is guilty.

That said, there is a deeper meaning to the sentence. In Maycomb, a racist town, there is no chance that a white jury will say that a black man is innocent, no matter how much evidence there is, especially against a white man. In this sense, this case is really black and white. More specifically, it is white versus black.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

During Atticus’ closing remarks, he makes the statement, “this case is simple as black and white.” (20.271) There are two sides to this statement which are paradoxically linked. Atticus captures both the simplicity and complexity of this case in his statement. Atticus tells the jury that this case is simple, and does not involve complicated facts; given the lack of medical evidence and the contradicting stories of Bob and Mayella Ewell, it is easy to surmise Tom Robinson is not guilty. It is easy to tell the difference between the colors black and white, just like it is easy to tell that Tom Robinson is not guilty. The connotative meaning of this statement suggests the complexity of race relations in Maycomb, Alabama. In 1930s Alabama, a white person’s word is believed over a black person's, despite overwhelming evidence that suggests otherwise. The prejudiced beliefs of Maycomb’s white residents allow jury members to convict an innocent man on the basis of the color of his skin.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on