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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Miss Maudie's refusal to attend the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird

Summary:

Miss Maudie refuses to attend the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird because she finds it morbid to watch a man's life being debated as if it were entertainment. She prefers to show her support for Atticus and justice in her own way, rather than being part of the spectacle.

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Why does Miss Maudie refuse to attend the trial in Chapter 16 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

In Chapter 16 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, when the children ask Miss Maudie if she is going to watch Tom Robinson's trial at the courthouse on the day of the trial, Miss Maudie responds with the following:

't's morbid, watching a poor devil on trial for his life.


In saying the above, Miss Maudie is asserting that it is mentally unhealthy, even grisly for people to want to be spectators at a trial, just to see someone being put on trial for his/her life. People who are not Tom Robinson should be feeling enough respect for life itself not to want to watch him be sentenced to death. Later, she tells the children she was certain Atticus would not win the case due to the racial prejudices of the jury; therefore, she knew Robinson would be sentenced to death, which was not something she felt was morally right to observe.

In her response to the children, Miss Maudie compares the spectators heading to the courthouse to attendees of a "Roman carnival" in the following simile:

Look at all those folks, it's like a Roman carnival.

The phrase "Roman carnival" refers to an annual time period of celebration observed by members of the Roman Catholic Church. The period of celebration begins at the feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to baby Jesus, and ends at the start of Lent, a period of 40 days of fasting prior to Easter. Carnival time is recognized as a wild time of festivity when all morals are set aside prior to the strict 40-day period of moral observance. The festival is actually rooted in the ancient Roman pagan Saturnalian festival, making carnival time a rather pagan holiday. Hence, in comparing the spectators of the trial to attendees of a "Roman carnival," Miss Maudie is describing the spectators as having an absence of all morals and of behaving rather like pagans than Christians.

In short, Miss Maudie does not want to attend the trial because she feels it is immoral to do so, just as attendees of Roman carnivals have a tendency to behave immorally.

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Why does Miss Maudie refuse to attend the trial in Chapter 16 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Unlike the rest of the town, Miss Maudie is not interested in the "spectacle" of the trial.  People are coming out in huge crowds and groups to watch (in Miss Maudie's accurate prediction) "a poor devil on trial for his life."

Her reference to the Roman carnival here is not likely a gladiator-type reference, as many students have observed.  The Roman carnival is described a celebration for the sake of celebrating, and it was chaotic.  Miss Maudie here does not want to sink to the level of the rest of the town (and surrounding areas) and show a sudden interest in judicial matters simply with the expectation of chaos and entertainment, all at the expense of an actual person's life.

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Why won't Miss Maudie attend the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Miss Maudie refuses to attend the trial because she she thinks it is morbid to watch someone fight for his life. She likens the trial to a Roman carnival, probably meaning gladiator combat in a coliseum. As she puts it:

I am not. ‘t’s morbid, watching a poor devil on trial for his life. Look at all those folks, it’s like a Roman carnival.

We see a little later that the trial has turned into a public spectacle, a form of entertainment for the whites:

The courthouse square was covered with picnic parties sitting on newspapers, washing down biscuit and syrup with warm milk from fruit jars. Some people were gnawing on cold chicken and cold fried pork chops. The more affluent chased their food with drugstore Coca-Cola in bulb-shaped soda glasses.

Blacks have congregated for the trial too, going in support of Tom Robinson.

Given that it is almost assured, even with Atticus mounting a real defense of his client, Tom Robinson will be convicted, the white people going to watch have somewhat of the same motivations as people attending lynchings. Miss Maudie thinks this is not right. Her neighbors are taking gleeful pleasure in the anticipation of watching a black man go down, whether he is innocent or not. Miss Maudie, who dislikes the town's racism, doesn't want to witness what she believes will be a display of white triumphalism.

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Why won't Miss Maudie attend the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird?

In Chapter 16, the children ask Miss Maudie if she will be attending the trial of Tom Robinson. Miss Maudie tells the children that she thinks it is morbid to watch a man on trial for his life. She compares watching the trial of Tom Robinson to a Roman carnival. Miss Maudie is a moral character throughout the novel and is not interested in seeing a man on trial for his life. Witnessing a man stand on trial for his life is no different than Roman citizens watching gladiators fight to the death in the Colosseum. Supporting an event where a man can possibly die displays a lack of humanity on the audience's behalf. Miss Stephanie, the Maycomb gossip queen, pretends that she is going to the Jitney Jungle before casually confessing she is going to the courthouse. Miss Maudie jokingly tells Stephanie that she needs to be careful she is not served a subpoena to testify. Miss Maudie refuses to witness such a disgusting event and wants nothing to do with Tom Robinson's trial.

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Why isn't Miss Maudie going to court to see the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird?

In chapter 16, Jem tells Dill about all the different people they see coming to town to watch the court proceedings for the Tom Robinson case. While the children are watching all of these people interested in the case, and taking time out of their work day to come see it, they ask Miss Maudie if she plans on going to watch the trial as well. Miss Maudie responds as follows:

"I am not. . . I have no business with the court this morning. . . 't's morbid, watching a poor devil on trial for his life. Look at all those folks, it's like a Roman carnival" (159).

Miss Maudie is one of the best people to grace the streets of Maycomb. She has so much respect for what is going on that she stays home in a silent effort to say so. She understands that the trial should be done in public to keep the proceedings honest; but with the way people are parading into town, they seem to be showing up for the sake of entertainment rather than out of respect for the people or case at hand. Miss Maudie won't participate because she's not one to put her nose in other people's business; plus, she has more respect for the case, the justice system, and herself than to be a part of the charade going on among the spectators. 

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Why isn't Miss Maudie going to court to see the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Like Atticus, Miss Maudie probably recognized that the outcome of the trial was preordained: Tom Robinson's word could not possibly be accepted over the word of any white person's--including the Ewells'. While most of the town headed to the square, to either attend the trial or wait outside, Miss Maudie decided to attend to her summer flowers. When Jem asked if she was going, Maudie responded,

     "I am not... I have no business with the court this morning."

When Dill asked if she was at least going to the square "to watch," she made it clear that the circus atmosphere was not to her liking.

"... 't's morbid, watching a poor devil on trial for his life. Look at all those folks, it's like a Roman carnival.
     "... Just because it's public, I don't have to go, do I?"

The trial was always on her mind that day, however. She later told Jem that

"I was sittin' there on the porch... I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited, I thought Atticus Finch won't win, he can't win, but he's the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we're making a step--it's just a baby-step, but it's a step."

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