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

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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,...

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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. 

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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?”

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In Harper Lee's famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the main character, Scout, is very young. In chapter 14 of the book, she asks her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, to explain what rape is after Calpurnia refuses to explain. As Scout tells us, "He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent." 

Essentially, Atticus purposely does not explain to Scout what rape is. Obviously, if you repeated this quote from Atticus to a child, they would still be completely clueless. It makes sense that he wanted to avoid giving a straightforward answer—rape is a pretty tough subject to discuss with your young daughter. However, it does make Atticus a bit of a hypocrite. He specifically told Jack earlier in the book to not to beat around the bush when a child asks you a question.

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Scout first asks Calpurnia what rape is in chapter 12. Calpurnia, a wise woman, advises Scout to ask her father about the definition. Scout gets her chance to ask Atticus what rape is in chapter 14. Atticus's philosophy about answering children's questions is to be direct and not try to skirt the issue. So, being a wise man, he gives his young daughter the legal definition of rape in an effort to answer her, but also to avoid any graphic illustrations of the subject. Atticus's definition is as follows:

". . . rape was the carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent" (135).

Scout's reaction is a bit funny because she pretends to understand what that means, but she doesn't. She just asks Atticus why Calpurnia didn't answer her when she first asked about rape. Unfortunately, Atticus doesn't get a chance to elaborate on the legal definition of rape because Aunt Alexandra pitches a fit about Scout having been at Calpurnia's church when she asked about rape. Hence, there is no more discussion about the definition of rape, for which Atticus must be relieved. The reason that the legal definition proves to be such a success is because Atticus doesn't flinch at the question; he confidently answers his daughter, which leaves no room for her to doubt him or to think that he is trying to avoid the subject.

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As always, Atticus Finch tells it like it is when Scout demands to know what rape means in Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. When Scout initially asks her Uncle Jack "what a whore-lady was," he beats around the bush. When Scout questions Calpurnia about rape, she instructs her to ask her father. Since Scout knows she can talk with Atticus about anything, she does.

    "What's rape?" I asked him that night.
    Atticus looked around from behind his paper... He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.

Scout was less than enthused by Atticus' accurate definition, and drops the matter. But it only led to another argument between Atticus and Aunt Alexandra concerning Calpurnia's place in the Finch family.

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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.

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