In "To Kill a Mockingbird", how does Atticus define rape for Scout?

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poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, a black man, is going to be put on trial for the rape and beating of a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. Jem and Scout hear various people gossiping about this crime in the town on a Saturday afternoon; one man comments, "They c'n go lose and rape up the countryside for all of 'em who run this county care." 

Scout does not understand what the man means by this, and so she goes home and asks Atticus what "rape" is. Atticus replies with a sigh that, "rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent."

Atticus' straightforward answer here and refusal to sugar-coat the topic is a reflection of his level-headedness as both a father and human being. Although his description may be a little too technical for Scout's complete understanding, he is treating her as an adult and not dismissing her genuine curiosity out of fear that she cannot handle the truth. This is also a demonstration of Atticus' values as a lawyer: he fights on the behalf of justice and truth, revealing what actually happened to Mayella (in this case, Tom's innocence and the responsibility of Mr. Ewell for beating his own daughter), even if it is uncomfortable for the people of Maycomb to hear due to their deeply-ingrained racist attitudes and beliefs. 

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a good question. Let me give you the context. Scout and Jem heard that there would be a trial and that Tom Robinson was accused of raping Mayella Ewell. The natural question for a curious young girl was to ask what rape was. Scout asked Calpurnia, but Calpurnia did not feel comfortable answering. Instead, she directed the question to Atticus and changed the subject and asked Scout if she was hungry. 

When Scout finally asked Atticus, Atticus gave her a very legal sounding definition - carnal knowledge of a woman without her consent. Scout acted like she understood. Atticus knew that Scout was too young to understand but he also knew that he had to give an answer. From this perspective, Atticus's words were wise. Here is the conversation:

Atticus looked around from behind his paper. He was in his chair by the window. As we grew older, Jem and I thought it generous to allow Atticus thirty minutes to himself after supper.

He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.

“Well if that’s all it is why did Calpurnia dry me up when I asked her what it was?”

ladyvols1 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At the beginning of chapter 14, of "To Kill a Mockingbird"  Scout remembers she has a question for Atticus.  "What's rape?" I asked him that night.  Atticus looked around from behind his paper.  He was in his chair by the window.  He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.  "Well if that's all it is why did Calpurnia dry me up when I asked her what it was?

Calpurnia did not think it was her place to explain the act of rape to Scout, so she left it up to Attitus.

zumba96 | Student

Atticus describes it as "carnal knowledge of a female by force" "without consent". When Scout asked Calpurnia about this she did not believe that it was her position to explain what it was and decided to leave this task up to her father. Scout was confused as to why Cal wouldn't answer her question so instead she went to her father.  You can find this scene at the beginning of chapter 14.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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