Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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This passage reveals some significant facts about the characters in the novel, about the reality of the justice process in the time and place setting of the novel, and about Atticus’s character.

In Chapter 27, we see Aunt Alexandra and Atticus discussing the outcome of the case, and Alexandra’s fears concerning Bob Ewell’s grudge against Atticus and “everybody connected with that case.” Atticus observes:

“I think I understand,” said Atticus. “It might be because he knows in his heart that very few people in Maycomb really believed his and Mayella’s yarns. He thought he’d be a hero, but all he got for his pain was…was, okay, we’ll convict this Negro but get back to your dump…I proved him a liar but [Judge John Taylor] made him look like a fool.” [TKAM Chapter 27]

In Maycomb, the Ewells are much like the nut grass in Miss Maudie’s lawn, one blade of which will “ruin a whole yard” [Chapter 5].  Maycomb society is depicted as operating along strict lines of segregation that don’t always follow lines of race. Bob Ewell, who belongs to the very lowest rung of Maycomb society, is shown through his own and Mayella’s testimony in the trial to be an abusive alcoholic who does not care for his children and refuses to work to better the family’s situation. His daughter Mayella, the object of much of his abuse, is powerless to improve her circumstances. The one thing the Ewells believe they possess that makes them superior is their race: in their opinion, their whiteness at least makes them “better” than the blacks of Maycomb. The trial, in which Ewell hoped to be seen as a hero, only shows him to be an abuser, far from improving his circumstances, only ostracizes him further.

In his explanation, Atticus reveals his understanding of exactly how the system of justice works in the setting of the novel: Tom Robinson, as Scout observes in Chapter 25, “…was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.” Tom was never going to be—could never be, in that time and place—acquitted of the charges of rape against Mayella Ewell. The very best Atticus could hope for was the slender chance of a different outcome upon appeal, and to show Bob and Mayella Ewell to be liars. Atticus also understands that everybody involved in the process during the trial—Judge Taylor, Atticus himself, the Ewells, the Sheriff—knew this before the trial started. The verdict, unfortunately, was a foregone conclusion, and the trial a formality.

This passage also emphasizes who Atticus Finch is. Earlier in the novel while speaking of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, Atticus says, “real courage…is when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” [Chapter 11] This courage is something that Atticus himself possesses: it is why he accepted the task of defending Tom Robinson, even though he knew how the trial would end. Although Atticus might not describe himself in this way, he is the lone courageous voice in Maycomb, willing to fight a losing battle simply because it is the right thing to do.

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