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...

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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)...

...Typical...to cut and run...Typical...to have no plan, no thought for the future, just run blind first chance he saw...you 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.

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There is actually very little commentary concerning the death of Tom Robinson aside from Mr. Underwood's editorial and the gossip that went around the town of Maycomb, which "was interested by the news of Tom's death for perhaps two days." Other comments:

  • An obituary appeared in the newspaper's Colored News.
  • Aunt Alexandra "put her hands to her mouth" and her "voice shook" when she heard the news. " 'This is the last straw,' " she said.
  • Miss Maudie said nothing, but "was breathing as if she had just climbed the steps." She commented that there were a " 'handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only.' "
  • According to Dill, Tom's wife, Helen, " 'Just fell down in the dirt like a giant with a big foot just came along and stepped on her.' "
  • Atticus described the events in a matter-of-fact manner. He "leaned against the refrigerator, pushed up his glasses and rubbed his eyes." " 'We had such a good chance,' " he said.

Bob Ewell does not comment in the story about Tom's death.

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The two opposing viewpoints we get to see are those of Mr. Underwood and Mr. Ewell.  I think the opposing viewpoints show the true sentiments of the American public as we've moved from slavery to Civil Rights.  I also believe these are two points of view that still exist today.

Mr. Underwood represents the part of society that may not have been brave enough, like Atticus, to take on the task of defending Tom, but who nevertheless believed he was innocent.  Mr. Underwood writes in the paper that Tom's death was "like the senseless slaughter of songbirds."  Mr. Underwood's reaction shows that there is forward movement in the minds of some - towards racial tolerance and equality.

Mr. Ewell's response on the other hand is is "one down, about two more to go."  Mr. Ewell represents the group of people who will never learn tolerance for racial (or other) differences.

Ironically, aside from the comments concerning the fact that he was "running" there isn't a lot of comment on how many times he was shot - and the fact that it was all in the back.  This is a subtle detail Harper Lee throws in, presumably as an additional shock to a modern audience.

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In Chapter 25, the author says that most of the people (white people, at least) in Maycomb think that Tom's death just shows how stupid black people are. They say that it shows black people have no patience or discipline. They say Tom might have gotten off on appeal, but he was too dumb to think ahead. Here's a quote:

To Maycomb, Tom's death was typical. Typical
of a nigger to cut and run. Typical of a nigger's mentality to have no plan, no thought for the future, just run blind first chance he saw.

I think that the author gives a bit of both sides to show that there were a few "decent" people in Maycomb, but to show that they were a very small minority.

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