In To Kill a Mockingbird, what is Harper Lee's purpose for including Mr. Raymond's conversation with Scout and Dill in the middle of the drama of the trial?
By the end of chapter 19 of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the questioning and cross examination in Tom Robinson's trial are over. For those with open hearts and ears to hear, an innocent verdict should be clear; for those who are entrenched in their prejudices, the verdict is different but equally clear.
The questioning has been a little rough for the latter group, for Atticus has quietly but systematically unraveled both Mayella's and her father Bob Ewell's stories, and their accusations are revealed to be blatantly false. All Atticus did was respectfully and clearly expose the truth, but the reactions against him by the Ewells are rather ugly.
Mayella accuses Atticus of mocking her (which of course he was not), and Bob Ewell absolutely insults him. Dill can withstand both of these, but when Mr. Gilmer, the prosecuting attorney, begins to talk disrespectfully to Tom, Dill can take no more and has to leave the courtroom.
Dill feels sick and has to leave, and Scout goes with him. He tries to explain to her what has him feeling sick, but she clearly does not understand. He is upset at the way Mr. Gilmer was treating Tom. Dill says:
...Mr. Finch didn't act that way to Mayella and old man Ewell when he cross-examined them. The way that man called him "boy" all the time an' sneered at him, an' looked around at the jury every time he answered--"
Dolphus Raymond overhears them, seems to understand how Dill is feeling, offering Dill a sip from the bottle he has in his old brown paper bag. Dolphus is a rather infamous character in Maycomb because he's a white man from a good family who has chosen to live with his black mistress and children outside of town. He has the reputation of being a drunk, carrying his paper bag, which everyone assumes has a liquor bottle in it, and staggering routinely.
Now Dill takes a sip and realizes it's only Coca-Cola. Now the stereotypes begin to fall. He only acts like a drunk because it gives people a concrete reason to disapprove of him. He tells the kids that they could
never, never understand that I live like I do because that's the way I want to live.
Dolphus knows why Dill is crying and upset, and he says one day Dill will still be sad but will no longer cry.
Cry about the simple hell people give other people--without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they're people, too.
He also reminds Scout that her father is standing for justice in a way that most people don't understand, approve of or appreciate.
This brief interlude serves at least four purposes. First, it's a relief for the kids and for us from the weightiness of the trial. Second, it both reminds of the town's racial tensions and gives us some hope for the future. Third, we're spared what must have been a horribly insulting and demeaning of the innocent Tom Robinson. Fourth, we're sadly prepared for a guilty verdict.
We got what we needed from Scout during the most important part of the trial; when she left, we were spared the insulting questioning by Mr. Gilmer; and she and Dill got back to the trial in time to hear most of Atticus's closing arguments. In between we were reminded of the injustices of prejudices from someone who has experienced them first-hand. In one sense, it's just another reminder of the entrenched, mindless prejudice that exists in the town; in another sense, it's a moment of hopefulness that there are, indeed, people who do not see color as a separating issue.