In Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, what does the African-American community think of Atticus when the case is lost? How do you know?
When Atticus Finch is defeated in his effort to defend Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the local African-American community nevertheless shows him great respect. As Finch leaves the courtroom, the black spectators rise as a way of paying tribute to him for his efforts on Robinson’s behlaf. Atticus’s daughter Scout reports this event:
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s.
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
A number of different observations can be made about this event, including the following:
- · Scout does not at first notice what is happening. It is not as if the African Americans do this for her or her brother’s benefit, although surely it must make both of them proud to know that their father is held in such high esteem. In any case, Scout had originally been paying attention to her father, in the courtroom below, not to anyone else in the balcony. The reaction of the black citizens, then, is designed not to make the children feel better but to pay genuine respect to Atticus.
- Nothing suggests that this display of respect was preplanned or orchestrated. No one – certainly not Reverend Sykes – urged the black citizens to stand. Instead, they seem to have stood so quietly, so spontaneously, so much without any plan to call attention to themselves, that Scout does not at first even notice what they have done (and are doing, even as she now looks at them).
- The black citizens are silent – partly symbolizing their respect, but also partly symbolizing their general enforced silence in a prejudiced society. Yet the black citizens have also arisen and are standing as a group (symbolizing their solidarity and perhaps implying their potential strength as a group).
- Significantly, Atticus does not respond to their gesture of respect. Perhaps he doesn’t see it, although it would be difficult not to see so many people rising at once. More likely, he is simply displaying the modesty that is such a central feature of his character. He may also, of course, still be stunned and disappointed by the outcome of the trial.