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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Which code is Atticus referring to in his closing statement?

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In Atticus's closing remarks, he comments on Mayella's actions and mentions that she had broken a time-honored code of their society by tempting a black man. In the prejudiced town of Maycomb, it is considered taboo for a white woman to have relations with a black man, which is exactly what Mayella did when she kissed Tom Robinson. Atticus goes on to say that any person caught breaking the time-honored code is "hounded" for the rest of their lives and considered unfit to live among the white community members. After Mayella kissed Tom Robinson, she attempted to get rid of him and cover her offense by claiming that Tom assaulted and raped her. Knowing that an all-white jury would surely take her word over a black man's, Mayella felt confident that her accusations would free her from her offense and hide the fact that she broke the time-honored code of Maycomb's society.

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The "code" that Atticus refers to is the system of racial etiquette and laws that existed in the South from Reconstruction until the 1960s. Known as "Jim Crow," it ensured that whites would remain in a position of power by establishing certain norms and boundaries between the races. Atticus says that Mayella feels guilty for breaking this "rigid and time-honored code" by attempting to have sex with Tom. Having been caught in violation of the code, she responds by lashing out at Tom, blaming him for all that has happened, and accusing him of rape. Interracial sex, especially between black men and white women, was a strong taboo in the South, one which was enforced by law and by extralegal lynchings of the black men who were often portrayed as predators. Mayella played into this belief on the part of many white Southerners, and Tom was put on trial for his life. As Atticus says, "[N]o code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards" (207). Out of guilt, she shifted the burden of breaking the code onto Tom. 

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