In To Kill a Mockingbird, what do Scout and Jem learn from Tom Robinson's trial? How does it benefit them? How does it change them?

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Scout and Jem learn that while there are a lot of racists in Maycomb, not everyone is racist.  They also learn that people are complicated but generally have good intentions.

Before the trial, Atticus expressed concern to his brother Jack about how the trial would affect Scout and Jem.  He knew that they would hear a lot of talk, about him and about the trial.  His children would have to mature a little early.  A rape trial is a very grown-up thing.

You know what’s going to happen as well as I do, Jack, and I hope and pray I can get Jem and Scout through it without bitterness, and most of all, without catching Maycomb’s usual disease. Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand… (Ch. 9) 

When the Cunningham mob comes to lynch Tom Robinson, both Scout and Jem intervene.  They learn that the Cunninghams are not bad people, but they just got carried away. Atticus tells them that most people are well-intentioned.  This later pans out when Atticus tells them that two Cunninghams would have hung the jury, because they were open-minded and willing to accept that Robinson was innocent after hearing the evidence.

Scout and Jem do not become racists, despite Scout using the N-word.  She is just repeating what others said.  Jem certainly is no racist.  He strongly believes that Tom Robinson will be acquitted.  However, another thing that Scout and Jem learn is that the world is not always fair.  Even with Atticus’s evidence that Tom Robinson could not have caused Mayella’s injuries, he is convicted. 

Scout and Jem also learn that race relations in Maycomb or more complicated than they thought.  During the trial, they meet Dolphus Raymond, who pretends to be drunk all of the time because he is living with a black woman and they have children.  Maycomb tolerates him because he is from a wealthy family. 

In a reflection that shows her growing understanding of the world, Scout realizes that Maycomb's reaction to Mayella’s relationship with Tom Robinson is different than Dolphus Raymond’s with his wife because Mayella is poor. 

She couldn’t live like Mr. Dolphus Raymond, who preferred the company of Negroes, because she didn’t own a riverbank and she wasn’t from a fine old family. Nobody said, “That’s just their way,” about the Ewells. Maycomb gave them Christmas baskets, welfare money, and the back of its hand. (Ch. 19) 

Jem determines that there are four kinds of people in Maycomb.  “Normal” people like the Finches, the Cunningham types, the Ewell types, and “the Negroes.”  This is the understanding of race and class relations he has developed from the trial.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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