How does Harper Lee make the trial scenes of To Kill a Mockingbird interesting and exciting for the reader?Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The trial scenes of To Kill a Mockingbird become a virtual theatre with various characters in roles of actors and commentators. 

  • Lee sets the scene of circus-like activity with the people arriving by wagonloads; others meander outside by the courthouse as the trial is "a gala occasion" with picnics arranged as babies nurse at their mothers' breasts while the segregated blacks sit quietly in the sun, eating sardines, crackers, and drinking Nehi sodas. 
  • Colorful characters such as Mr. Raymond Dolphus, an anomaly for Maycomb, enter the scene; the Idler's Club make pronouncements on the direction the trial will take. In addition they offer the reader hints on the direction the trial will take,

"Yeah, but Aticus alms to defend him.  That's what I don't like about it."

  • This pronouncement adds insight to Scout, who narrates that she and Jem could have used this information to defend their father when others made accusatory remarks. On the other hand, Scout is perplexed that the men "didn't like [that] about it."
  • Inside the courtroom, Scout, Jem, and Dill find themselves sitting by Reverend Sykes in the Colored balcony where they can see everything.  They look down upon the inimitable Judge Taylor, "looking like a sleepy old shark," chewing upon an unlit cigar.
  • Then, with the appearance of Bob Ewell--Robert E. Lee Ewell--the man becomes a parody of the low-class, shiftless, unconscionable stereotype known as "white-trash."  Shameless episodes of his coarseness and stupidity result from Ewell's attempt to vilify Tom Robinson by accusing him of "ruttin' on my Mayella" and she screams "like a stuck hog inside the house."  Lest the trial become a travesty, Judge Taylor must pound his gavel a full five minutes to restore order.  Shortly after Atticus cross-examines, Ewell displays his crassness as Atticus gets him to write his name, proving that Ewell is left-handed, a fact that foreshadows a strengthening factor to Robinson's defense.
  • Of course, the appearance of Mayella adds more drama and parody to the Robinson trial as Scout wonders aloud to her brother "Has she got good sense?"  Indeed, Mayella is so crass as to believe that Atticus mocks her by calling her politely "ma'am."
  • From parodic humor, the trial moves to pathos as the innocent Tom Robinson takes the stand and is taunted by Mr. Gilmer into uttering the damning words, "I felt sorry for her."  This cruel treatment of Tom elicits so much emotion from the sensitive Dill that he is made sick.  Mr. Raymond consoles him and instructs him to

"Cry about the simple hell people give other people--without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they're people, too."

  • After the recess, court resumes and in the closing remarks, Atticus Finch appeals to the jury's reasonableness and sense of justice, hoping to restore decency to the trial: 

"A court is only as sound s its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up."

  • Throughout the proceedings of the trial, there are the close observations and deductions of the maturing Scout and Jem, the voice of adulthood and experience from Mr. Dolphus that find it difficult to resolve the tragedy that befalls the innocent mockingbird, Tom. 

Clearly, all the motifs and lessons of the novel culminate in the trial scenes.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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