Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee
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How does the trial change Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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The trial, of course, is a pivotal moment in the children's lives, one which captivates them. This is why they attend the trial (at first without their father's knowledge) in the first place. For Jem , who watches the proceedings with rapt attention, the trial results in a newfound, deep...

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The trial, of course, is a pivotal moment in the children's lives, one which captivates them. This is why they attend the trial (at first without their father's knowledge) in the first place. For Jem, who watches the proceedings with rapt attention, the trial results in a newfound, deep respect for his father. As the trial wraps up, he is very excited, believing that Tom will be acquitted. He is therefore devastated when the verdict is handed down. He weeps in the courtroom, saying that the decision "ain't right." His sense of justice has been shattered, a sentiment that he makes clear when he compares Maycomb to a "cocoon," one which he had always believed to be a safe and warm place. The trial convinces him that it is as full of injustice and evil as anywhere else. Atticus attempts, in a long conversation, to help him understand how the law works, especially how it is a human institution.

Scout, who is, of course, much younger, is not as outwardly affected by the event. Still, she is equally mystified by the verdict, and, given her belief that "folks is just folks," she cannot fully comprehend the inequalities in Maycomb that Jem is just coming to understand. When she reads an editorial on Tom's death in the town newspaper, she is struck by the realization that Tom never had a chance: "[He] was a dead man the minute Mayella opened her mouth and screamed." She is also, presciently, concerned by the possibility that Bob Ewell might seek revenge for his family's embarrassment at the trial, which Bob blames on Atticus.

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After witnessing racial injustice firsthand, both siblings lose their childhood innocence. However, Jem and Scout react differently after witnessing Tom's wrongful conviction. Jem becomes jaded towards the racist community members of Maycomb. Jem is shocked to learn that his kind and compassionate neighbors are prejudiced individuals. He laments the lack of sympathy and justice in Maycomb and begins to resent the members of his community. In addition to becoming more perceptive and aware of the overt prejudice in Maycomb, Jem becomes more sympathetic towards defenseless individuals. Jem also becomes motivated to change the justice system, which reflects his father's morally upright nature.

In contrast, Scout does not become jaded after witnessing Tom Robinson's wrongful conviction. However, she does become more aware of the overt racism in Maycomb. She also begins to recognize the hypocrisy throughout the community and questions the beliefs of certain citizens. Scout also becomes more empathetic towards innocent, defenseless beings and metaphorically applies Atticus's lesson about not killing mockingbirds. After the trial, both children begin to analyze the positive and negative qualities of their community and judge the town of Maycomb for what it truly is.

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The trial of Tom Robinson and the guilty verdict that he receives serves as another example of the loss of innocence that Jem and Scout suffer during the chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird. Before the trial begins, Scout has to deal with schoolmates and her cousin, Francis, who refer to Atticus as a "nigger-lover" for his defense of Tom. The children hear gossip about their father on the streets of Maycomb, and they see the support that Tom receives from the black community when they visit his church with Calpurnia. They see first-hand the anger and potential evil of the community when they come to Atticus' rescue from the lynch mob at the jail just before the trial begins.

Sneaking away to attend the trial in person, Scout and Jem witness the evidence presented and decide for themselves that Atticus has made a strong case for Tom's innocence. Yet the jury cannot overlook the fact that Tom is black and that Mayella is white, and they vote to convict him. Scout sees that the jury consisted of

... twelve good men and true... Then Mr. Underwood's meaning 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.

The decision made Jem question the need for juries, and Miss Maudie had to respond to his "fatalistic noises," telling him that there were people in town who supported Atticus and how important he was to the community. Jem and Scout both feared for Atticus' safety after the threats made by Bob Ewell, and it made Jem recognize that there were distinctly different types of people living in Maycomb. Tom's death even made Jem more aware of the value of all living things, evidenced when he chastizes Scout after finding her about to "mash" a doodlebug. The outcome of the trial made both of the children grow up a little more quickly, once exposed to the real world where life isn't always fair and just.

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