In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, describe the reaction by the majority of Maycomb County residents to Tom's death, discussing why the author presents opposing points of the view on this subject.

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In Chapter Twenty-four, when news gets out about Tom Robinson's death in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the Maycomb community at large responds one way, and non-prejudicial folks like Miss Maudie, and even Mr. Underwood, owner of the newspaper, The Maycomb Tribune respond differently.

Atticus notes that the guards would never feel a sense of loss for the death of the black man convicted of raping Mayella Ewell. To them Tom wasn't a person:

"This is the last straw, Atticus," Aunt Alexandra said.

"Depends on how you look at it," [Atticus] said. "What was one Negro, more or less, among two hundred of 'em? He wasn't Tom to them, he was an escaping prisoner."

Miss Maudie notes that to a handful of people in town, Tom's death was a travesty because they did not define a man's worth based upon the color of his skin. Miss Maudie points out that these people rely on Atticus to stand up and do the right thing, even if it's not popular. She identifies this group as...

The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us...

For Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra, Tom's death speaks to the racial divide that separates the town of Maycomb. Alexandra's pain in learning that Tom was shot so brutally speaks to how she has changed her attitude about race.

For the remainder of the townspeople, however, the reaction is similar to that of the guards: they don't see Tom as a person, but as a black man—inferior in everyway simply because of his skin color. In Chapter Twenty-five, the townspeople make disparaging remarks about Tom. They accuse him of being foolish and cowardly (putting him into the same category where they place all blacks)... cut and have no plan, no thought for the future, just run blind first chance he know how they are. Easy come, easy go.

The ripple created by the news of Tom's death garners public attention for "perhaps two days." However, Mr. Underwood does not sit quietly by; he decides to write an editorial, "writing so children could understand." He raged on about how "it was a sin to kill cripples" under any circumstance, comparing it to the "slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children;" but the majority of the readers missed his point completely.

Prejudice and justice are two strong themes in the story, as well as innocence—seen not just in Tom's innocence, but also in the coming of age theme exemplified by the changes seen in Jem and Scout. While Scout's enlightenment comes more slowly to her than to Jem (in that she is younger), the reader can find messages from the author that Scout does not necessarily recognize. In a moment of brilliant clarity, Lee uses Scout's voice to share a heavy truth of this time period in the South. Scout notes:

Then Mr. Underwood's message became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.

In conveying the different responses exhibited by various groups in Maycomb, Harper Lee speaks directly to the themes of prejudice, injustice, and social separation: central messages of her story. One group represents ignorance; the other, social enlightenment.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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