Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis

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This chapter opens with Tom Robinson attempting to guide his left arm (the bad one) to swear on the Bible. When he fails, he takes the oath without placing a hand on the Bible. Atticus then asks him his age (twenty-five), if he has any children (three), and if he has ever been in trouble before (once; he did thirty days for disorderly conduct). Atticus asks him all this to prove to the jury that Tom has nothing to hide. He then asks Tom about Mayella. Tom testifies that he'd gotten to know Mayella over a period of a couple months when she asked him to do various odd jobs around the house for her, including busting up that chiffarobe. It's clear that Tom was the only person to ever really be nice to Mayella, and that this is what ended up getting him in trouble. He denies hurting her. In fact, she came onto him.

It happened like this: Mayella saved up seven nickels so all of her siblings would go into town to buy ice creams. This meant that she and Tom would be alone and that she could flirt with him in private, without her family seeing. She had him stand up on a chair to reach for something, then, when she hugged his legs, he jumped down, and she hugged him again, this time kissing him on the cheek. (Tom also testifies, "She says what her papa do to her don't count," but Atticus doesn't press him to explain this, just leaves it for the jury and the reader to figure out. This line makes it clear that Ewell was the one who raped his daughter.) Tom then says that Ewell saw Mayella kiss him through the window and that he threatened to kill his own daughter, calling her a "whore." It shouldn't come as a surprise that Tom ran away as fast as he could. This revelation leads his boss Link Deas to announce to the court that Tom was always a good worker and that he never caused any trouble. Judge Taylor throws Link Deas out of the courthouse, but the truth has already been said. Tom is innocent.

Then it's Mr. Gilmer's turn to question Tom. He doesn't believe that Tom would help Mayella out of the goodness of his heart and badgers him until he finally says that he did all of those odd jobs for her because he "felt sorry for her." The white people in the audience don't like this, because in their opinion it's inappropriate for an African American to feel superior enough to a white person to feel sorry for them. Mr. Gilmer then asks Tom why he ran away so fast if he was innocent, and Tom says that he knew he'd be arrested even though he didn't do anything (the implication being that an African American has no chance when a white person accuses them of something). This upsets Dill enough that Scout has to take him outside, where they talk about what happened. Dill thinks Mr. Gilmer was mean to Tom, but Scout knows from experience that he was being easy on him. Still, Dill thinks it's wrong. He doesn't have the stomach for it.


The Bible. In the context of a courtroom, the Bible becomes a symbol of truth and justice. Swearing on it is considered the highest oath, and it's traditional for witnesses to rest their hand on the Bible when they swear to tell the truth on the stand. Tom, unfortunately, can't place his left hand on the Bible, because that's his bad arm, but it's important to remember that he still takes the oath (he just does it verbally, without touching this Bible). Tom's oath is considered binding by Judge Taylor and is thus just as powerful as the oaths all the other witnesses took.

Mockingbirds. Tom's innocence makes him a symbolic mockingbird. Given that he's at the center of the biggest and most important narrative arc in the novel, it's safe to say that the entire novel is arguing that it's a sin to kill him (or, in this chapter, to put him on trial for a crime he didn't commit). It's clear to Scout and to anyone whose mind isn't clouded by racism that Tom is innocent and that putting him on trial is in itself a serious injustice; but that won't change the verdict, unfortunately.


Innocence. Up until the beginning of Tom's trial, innocence took the form of childish innocence, of the kind that leads Jem to believe that Atticus will win the case with pure logic. In this chapter, innocence becomes a more weighted term, taking on legal connotations indicating that Tom is innocent (not guilty) of a crime. His innocence stems not from his youth or naivete but from the fact that he did not do anything wrong. Unfortunately, being innocent doesn't mean that he'll be found not guilty.

Racism. Tom points out the underlying racism of his arrest when he says that he ran away because he was afraid of having to face "what [he] didn't do," meaning that he'd be blamed for something that he didn't do and not be able to prove his innocence because it would be a white man's word against his. This speaks to the systemic racism in Maycomb and the South at that time that made it near impossible for an African American to be treated fairly in the legal system. Tom is lucky in that he had Atticus to defend him. Other men in his position fared much worse in court.

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