Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, as Scout waits for the verdict, she thinks of earlier events. What are these events, and how do they remind us of the novel's central themes?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the most important earlier event that Scout remembers is Atticus shooting the rabid dog, Tim Johnson. The silence and tension in the courtroom reminds Scout of that time, when even the mockingbirds were still. This ties to the theme that Robinson, like the mockingbird, is innocent, and also to the theme that challenging race relations is destabilizing to the community, just as the rabid dog was.

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Because of Atticus's strong defense of Tom Robinson, the all-white jury takes a surprisingly long time—hours—to determine that he is guilty. This gives Scout time to think. She remembers what Jem once told her:

I remembered something Jem had once explained to me when he went through a brief period of psychical research: he said if enough people—a stadium full, maybe—were to concentrate on one thing, such as setting a tree afire in the woods, that the tree would ignite of its own accord.

This aligns with the idea that, contrary to Scout's wishes, the white community in Maycomb is concentrating on the need to keep Black people oppressed at all costs. Scout wishes, in contrast, that people would concentrate on Robinson being acquitted.

More significantly, the stillness in the packed courthouse as the spectators wait brings back Scout's memories of the silent streets when the rabid dog Tim Johnson was wandering free:

When the mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley Place

This memory shows that people are as fearful of Tom Robinson being acquitted—or convicted—as they are of a mad dog on the loose. The trial has brought up the uneasy tensions that exist between Black and white people in the Maycomb community and white people's deep-seated fears of disruption of a social order that has worked comfortably for them—but now might "bite" them.

It's significant, too, that Scout remembers the Radley place at this moment, along with the stillness of the mockingbirds, because Boo is the other wronged innocent in the story—the other mockingbird.

This pause shows Scout maturing, processing events, and assessing the present moment in the light of her past experiences.

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In chapter 21, Scout does her best to stay awake while the jury takes a few hours to deliberate on the Tom Robinson case. Scout says that she gets a premonition or "impression" that makes her shiver even though the courtroom is hot and it is summertime (210). The best way Scout can describe this shivering feeling is to compare it to times in her life when the mockingbirds are still, carpenters aren't working on Maudie's house, and everyone on the street shuts themselves in their homes on a cold winter day. These images create a sense of coldness and desertion as people wait for the cold to go away. In the courthouse that night, everyone is waiting for the same thing—a break in the cold. For a year or so, the whole county has been anxiously waiting for the outcome of this trial, so it's as if the whole world stops.

Scout then says that the courtroom is like "A deserted, waiting, empty street," much like the one when everyone closed their doors and waited for Atticus to kill the mad dog Tim Johnson on that February day. It's as...

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if everyone is waiting for the metaphorical mad dog, Tom Robinson, to be officially shot with a verdict. Everyone knows what the outcome will be, but they wait anyway. White men wait to get the verdict over with so they can move on with life and black men wait to support Tom in his predictable plight.

Scout's reference to the mockingbirds can certainly point towards the theme that people shouldn't shoot them because they are harmless and good. People shouldn't convict harmless Tom Robinson, either, but they do. The sin is on their heads when they convict him because it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

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While waiting for the verdict, Scout recalls the incident back in February when her father shot dead the mad dog, Tim Johnson, with a single gunshot. Now, when Atticus returns to hear the verdict along with the rest of the court, she feels somehow that it was like that earlier time, but with a crucial difference: was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing the gun was empty.

The earlier incident of the mad dog takes on an interesting symbolism when Scout recalls it at the climax of the trial. In the earlier incident, Atticus was able to eliminate the danger: he triumphed in an extremely tense, heightened situation. This time, however, he will be defeated. The linking of the two incidents in Scout's mind is understandable as in both cases she is watching her father taking on the odds, but this time he is deprived of ammunition. The mad-dog incident could also be taken as symbolic of the evil of racism which Atticus attempts to shoot down, as he did the dog. He is not able to prevail against the prejudiced majority however. 

Scout also remembers how 'the mockingbirds were still' back on that cold day in February. This also reminds us of the novel's main themes as the mockingbird functions as a symbol of innocence. Now Tom, as an innocent victim of prejudice, is about to be convicted, and will eventually be killed, 'stilled' like the mockingbirds. 

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In Chapter 21, while Scout is waiting for the verdict, she thinks about something Jem had told her about the power of human concentration, and she tries to act on it. (Much of the novel focuses on young people learning to act on what they've been taught, and on forming community.)

She also thinks about the mockingbirds and how they fall silent in February. (The physical world sometimes echoes the emotional world in the book. Also, winter is a time when the world is dark and despair seems likely; that's the case now, when Atticus loses the case.)

She thinks of the carpenters stopping their hammering on Miss Maudie's new house, and the workmen building a new house after the old burns down is like Maycomb must rebuild into a new community after this travesty of justice.


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After the three children have been discovered in the courtroom, they convince Atticus to let them stay for the final verdict of the Tom Robinson trial--after they have returned for supper with Calpurnia. Upon their return, Jem expresses his confidence about an acquittal, but Reverend Sykes expesses doubt. "I ain't ever seen any jury decide in favor of a colored man over a white man." Jem, Scout and Dill then begin their own vigil.

Scout observes Atticus wandering the courtroom and realizes that things don't seem normal. "I had never seen a packed courtroom so still." After more than a four hour wait, she takes a short nap herself. When she awakes, in typical Maycomb style, nothing has changed; the sleepy crowd accurately represents the town: nothing else important is happening, there is nowhere else to go.

Scout remembers one of Jem's "psychical" gems: if enough people were to concentrate on one thing, the power of positive thinking would surely cause that thing to occur.

I toyed with the idea of asking everyone below to concentrate on setting Tom Robinson free, but thought if they were as tired as I, it wouldn't work.

Then another thought crept upon her. It was like one she had had the previous winter, and she shivered even though the courtroom was hot. The stuffy courtroom reminded her of a cold February morning when all the mockingbirds were still.

A deserted waiting empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people. A steamy summer night was no different from a winter morning.

The above refers to the day Atticus killed the mad dog in the street. Things would be no different here. Scout has a premonition that this great change that they hope for--Tom's acquittal--will still happen. Things stay the same in Maycomb, be they cold mornings or hot summer nights. If Atticus can slay the rabid dog, then he can convince the racist jury.

But Scout then

... saw something only a lawyer's child could be expected to see... and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty.    A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson.

Scout recognizes that Atticus does not have the ammunition needed to convince this jury, and she sees beforehand that Tom will be convicted. Convincing a white jury to put aside it racial biases is not as easy as killing a mad dog after all. 

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In Chapter 21 of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, while waiting for the jury to return with their decision, Scout reflects on how that hot summer evening seems very much like the cold February morning on which Atticus shot the rabid dog. This is one of my favorite parts of the novel.

Scout's father (Atticus Finch) and the sheriff of Maycomb (Mr. Tate) are present in both scenes, but the literal parallels between the two scenes probably end there. What's more important, obviously, are the symbolic parallels. As I read this section of the novel, Scout expresses a wish that her father can take down the racism of the white jury just as cleanly as he took down the mad dog. The way that Atticus talks about racism in several places in the novel (describing it as something that causes normal people to lose their minds) also helps develop this connection between the physical disease of rabies and the social disease of racism.

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This is actually a very interesting question.  Scout's mind does wander a bit while they are awaiting the verdict, but it doesn't wander without cause or purpose.  She thinks of things that tie very well into what is happening in the courthouse.  One of the first things that she thinks of is the afternoon that the old, rabid dog, Tim Johnson was walking down their street.  She says that the atmosphere that day is the same as it is now in the courtroom.  They all are just tense, watching and waiting, seeing what would happen.  They knew something bad would happen, they just didn't know what or in what form.  Of that day, Scout says, "Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street."  Scout feels the same way waiting for the jury to come in.  She says,

"The feeling in the courtroom grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning...a deserted, waiting, empty street."

She compares everyone just waiting to see what the dangerous dog would to, to everyone just waiting for what the jury would do.  It is a subtle foreshadowing of the negative verdict that was about to be announced; the dog situation didn't end well, and neither did the case, and Scout's emotional radar picked up on that very insightfully.  This goes well with the theme of the mockingbird, that someone innocent is harmed.  We all want Tom to be found innocent so badly, but we suspect it isn't going to happen.  The novel's theme of prejudice and racism is emphasized as the jury comes back with a guilty verdict.

I hope that helps a bit; good luck!

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