What are the key parts of Atticus's final statement in Chapter 20 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, also known as a “bildungsroman.” In this kind of story, the protagonist, in this case Scout, is shown to grow and develop as a person.

Part of Scout’s growth in the novel is spurred by her father’s role in the trial of Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly accused of raping the white woman Mayella Ewell. Thus the trial itself, and Atticus’s role in it, is an important plot line in the story.

Lee emphasizes the trial’s importance as Atticus begins to address the all-white jury. The narrator describes Atticus as he steps out of character:

Atticus did something I never saw him do before or since, in public or in private: he unbuttoned his vest, unbuttoned his collar, loosened his tie, and took off his coat.

This is a big deal for Atticus, a bastion of stability and good sense, yet he suddenly changes his approach as a lawyer. It tells the reader that this trial is something above the ordinary, and that it will have an important impact on the rest of the story.

Then Lee employs a common literary device, the pun, to emphasize the central focus of the trial, when Atticus says to the jury:

This case is as simple as black and white.

In the early 1960s, when Lee published the novel, this statement was considerably more controversial than it is now. Of course, what he means is that the defendant, Tom Robinson, a black man, is the subject of white prejudice. Lee has set the novel in the 1930s, when prejudicial attitudes were much more prevalent than they are now.

This shows the reader how important Atticus believes the trial to be. It is an important moment when somebody steps out of character. Writers use such points in their stories to signify watershed moments in the narrative.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Chapter 20 of To Kill a Mockingbird contains the closing argument of Tom Robinson's trial.  In the closing statement, Atticus presents three main arguments.  First, he reminds the jury that there is no medical evidence that Tom Robinson committed the crime.  Mayella Ewell was beat by someone who was left handed, but Tom Robinson has no use of his left hand.  Atticus reminds the jury that when Bob Ewell "swore out a warrant," he no doubt signed it with his left hand. 

While this was clear evidence that should have exonerated Tom of the crime, Atticus knew that in the society in which they were living, he needed to convince the jury of a bit more.  He then went on to explain that when Mayella's father caught her committing the crime of kissing a black man, she, like a child, needed to destroy the "evidence of her offense."  This trial and Tom's subsequent punishment would be how she manages to do so.

In the last portion of the closing statement, Atticus talks about the fact that unlike Jefferson's assertion, in reality, all men are not created equal.  He recognizes that they are living in a time of inequality, but that they have a duty to maintain justice.  He asserts:

“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal— there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.





Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial