What is Atticus's explanation of rape in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?
This is a good question. As Scout learns about the trial, she naturally asks what rape is, as Tom Robinson is on trial because of an alleged rape. So, at first Scout asks Calpurnia. Calpurnia feels uncomfortable in giving an answer, so she tells Scout to ask her father, Atticus. When Atticus finally comes home, Scout asks. Here is the dialogue:
“What’s rape?” I asked him that night. 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?”
As you can see Atticus was not able to deflect the question. So, he answered her in a direct manner. However, he spoke is a lawyerly way - carnal knowledge of a female by force without consent.
The funny thing is that Scout acted like she understood this definition, when in fact she had no clue what Atticus was saying. The point is that Atticus gave her an answer, but it was above Scout's head and understanding. In doing so, this answer satisfied Scout (she was given an answer), but also did not explain what rape was, as Scout was too young to understand. In the end, Scout and Atticus were satisfied.
Scout and Jem have been exposed to many things because of their father Atticus' involvement with the trial of a black man accused of attacking a white woman. Scout has become curious about the term "rape" and has previously asked Calpernia what the word means. Calpernia referred Scout to Atticus who now must provide Scout with the information she seeks.
As Atticus sits enjoying a few minutes of peace while reading, Scout interrupts his solitude with a question. Momentarily surprised, Atticus quickly recovers and responds to Scout's question about the meaning of the word rape. Atticus needed a definition suitable for a girl of Scout's age. He decided to provide Scout with a very basic, dictionary definition:
"Carnal knowledge of a female by force without consent."
This definition appeared to satisfy Scout and led to a conversation during which Scout told Atticus about having gone to church with Calpernia.
Atticus explains that "rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent" to Scout. It is an appropriate answer to give her given her age, yet it doesn't fully explain the violence of such an act.
At first, Scout asks Calpurnia to explain rape, but Calpernia deflects the question to Atticus when he arrives home. One of Atticus' trademark qualities in To Kill a Mockingbird is that he never treats children condescendingly, always preferring to speak to them in a way that honors their intellectual capability.
In reply to Scout's question, Atticus simply states that rape is "carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent." He gives them what basically amounts to a textbook definition of rape, as dry as it may seem, yet he leaves open the possibility for Scout and Jem to ask any follow-up questions. He does not skirt around the issue, nor does he go into too much detail.