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 scene in To Kill a Mockingbird create conflict?

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Conflicts abound surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson. Long before the trial begins, Jem and Scout become aware that many people in Maycomb are unhappy that Atticus has taken the case. It is a decision he had hoped to never make, since he knows that defending a black man accused of raping a white woman is a case he could not win. Some are upset because they know that Atticus will try his best to win the case; others, like his sister, Alexandra, are upset because of how it might affect the entire Finch family.

As the spectators enter the courtroom, the divisive nature that surrounds the trial becomes more evident: Black people must wait until after all of the white people enter; once inside, Negroes are segregated in the balcony. When the trial begins, Atticus determines that Mayella was hit by someone who "led almost exclusively with his left." He all but accuses Bob Ewell of beating his own daughter. Once Mayella takes the stand, she contradicts her own testimony during Atticus's questioning, and she eventually refuses to answer his queries. When Tom takes the stand, Atticus allows him to tell his story, but the prosecutor attacks his credibility, primarily along racial lines.

Author Harper Lee builds the tension steadily, beginning with Sheriff Tate's bland testimony, and followed by Bob Ewell's explosive revelation that he caught Tom "ruttin' on my Mayella." Mayella's time on the stand is highly emotional: She is reduced to tears, and Atticus is forced to abandon his instinctive manners of the Southern gentleman and attack Mayella's credibility--he "rained questions on her." When Tom's testimony presents an entirely different version of the events, the prosecutor's cross-examination is so emotional that Dill needs to take a break from the proceedings. The scene with Dolphus Raymond gives the reader a breather from the racially-charged testimony before Scout and Dill return for Atticus's dramatic summation. Lee reestablishes the tension in the courtroom during Atticus's speech and, later, as the spectators wait for the verdict from the jury--one that ignores the conflicting evidence and testimony but proves correct Atticus's prediction that Tom's word could not possibly be taken over the word of the Ewells. The fallout of the trial creates more conflicts: Jem no longer trusts juries or the people of Maycomb; Bob decides that revenge is in order; and Tom dies after deciding that he has little chance with white man's justice.

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How do the relationships in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird create conflict and tension in the story?

There are two types of relationships that create conflict and tension in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Relationships between family members create conflict.  Tension is also caused by relationships between different members of Maycomb society.

There are conflicts between Jem and Scout, and between the children and their father.  Any family has tension, and the tension between Scout and Jem is mostly based on Jem being older than Scout and having a better understanding of the way the adult world works than she does.  Tension between Atticus and his children is also caused by his choice to...

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defend Tom Robinson, a choice that causes problems for both of his kids and one that they do not fully understand until the trial.  Another example of family conflict is Aunt Alexandra, who has conflicts with Scout over what it means to be a lady.

There is also tension and conflict caused by relationships between Atticus and other members of the Maycomb community due to Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson.  Atticus is normally well-respected in Maycomb.  His high standing in society is maintained even throughout the trial, because people respect his choice even if they disagree.  However this puts Atticus at odds with various members of Maycomb, such as the incident with the Cunningham mob.  If Atticus had no relationships with these people to begin with, then the tension would not be so high.

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How do the relationships in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird create conflict and tension in the story?

Jem and Scout's relationship with their neighbors in Maycomb creates a great deal of the conflict and tension in the novel. As they watch events unfold in Tom Robinson's case, they often cannot understand what they see and hear around them, but they do recognize cruelty and hatefulness. Mrs. Dubose's tirade about their father's "lawing for niggers" infuriates Jem so much that he destroys her flowers. When cousin Francis calls Atticus a "nigger lover," Scout beats him up, just as she fought with Cecil Jacobs at school for essentially criticizing Atticus in the same way.

Scout's relationship with Aunt Alexandra is also one of conflict, and the tension between her and her aunt develops to the point that it fills Scout with great anxiety and frustration. In her attempts to mold Scout into a lady, Alexandra often insults Scout and hurts her feelings. When she tries to turn Jem and Scout into "respectable" members of the Finch family line, Scout sees Alexandra as a threat to the roles she and Jem have always played in their family and to the nature of their relationship with their father:

Atticus, is all this behavin' an' stuff gonna make things different? I mean are you--? . . . Do you really want us to do all that? I can't remember everything Finches are supposed to do . . . .

Scout's fears are resolved when Atticus tells her he doesn't want her to remember it: "Forget it," he tells her.

Finally, Scout and Jem's relationship with Boo Radley creates one particular scene of great dramatic tension when Jem returns to the Radley yard to retrieve his pants from their fence. Scout is certain her brother will be killed.

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