What passages are examples of direct and indirect characterization of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An author creates direct characterization by coming out and describing a character's traits, often through the voice of the narrator. In contrast, an author creates indirect characterization by showing a reader what a character is like rather than telling the reader. The reader is able to figure out the character's traits through the character's actions, things the character says, and even through other characters' responses to that character. Harper Lee mostly uses indirect characterization to tell the reader the few things we know about Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.

One example of indirect characterization occurs early on in the book, soon after Atticus is given the case. In Chapter 9, Scout faces ridicule for the first time due to her father's decision to take the case, and that ridicule comes in the form of Cecil Jacobs announcing in the schoolyard that Scout's "daddy defended niggers." Since Scout is beginning to face ridicule, Atticus knows he must tell her a bit about Tom Robinson and the case so that she can begin to understand why taking the case is necessary. Author Lee first indirectly characterizes Tom Robinson through the information about him Atticus gives to Scout:

He's a member of Calpurnia's church, and Cal knows his family well. She says they're clean-living folks. (Ch. 9)

This indirect description of Robinson counts as Calpurnia's response to Robinson and is actually very informative since the reader already knows quite a bit about Calpurnia. We know she is a very morally upright person and would never be good friends with anyone who was not equally morally upright. Therefore, since we learn through this description that Robinson is a good friend of Cal's and a member of her church, we are also indirectly learning that Robinson is as equally spiritual and morally upright as Cal and, hence, most likely innocent of what he is being accused of.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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