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Twelve Angry Men

by Reginald Rose

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What are the three main themes of Twelve Angry Men?

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Three main themes in Twelve Angry Men are justice, innocence, and class. These themes are interwoven, playing off of each other as the jury deliberates. In their hands, justice seems fragile, subject to the whims of men who just want to go home.

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Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men offers plenty of food for thought, as it explores many different themes. Three of the play's primary themes are human motivations, the difference between appearance and reality, and the courage to stand up for one's beliefs.

Let's look at the first of these themes: human motivations. Several of the jurors are operating out of personal motivations that are revealed throughout the play. The tenth juror, for instance, has major issues with racial prejudice and judges the accused solely because of his race. The third juror, who holds out to the end before changing his verdict, is bitter because of the conflict he has with his own son, and he takes his bitterness out on the accused. Even the witnesses are operating out of their own motivations. For example, the eighth juror thinks that the old man who testified is seeking attention.

Second, we notice from these motivations and from other elements of the play that appearance and reality are not the same thing. The accused appears to be guilty of murdering his father. All the evidence seems to be stacked against him. Yet when the jurors, led by the eighth juror, begin to look more closely at the evidence, they find all kinds of holes. The appearance, they discover, does not match the reality. The accused is not, in fact, guilty. He did not murder his father.

Third, the eighth juror notices this difference between appearance and reality, and he is not afraid to speak up about it. He votes "not guilty" even in the face of opposition from all the other jurors, and he sticks with it. He could have easily caved in to peer pressure and gone along with the crowd to convict the young man, but he will not. He has plenty of courage to keep fighting for what he believes in and to discover the truth.

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Three important themes in Twelve Angry Men are justice, innocence, and class, and these connect with each other and reflect the inner lives of the jurors in key ways. Playwright Rose intends for his twelve characters to represent a contemporary cross section of white, male, urban America (i.e., its historically dominant social demographic) at a time of both rising civil rights tensions and progress in the 1950s.

This slice of the nameless civic majority represents a humble, hometown hegemony, a civil-scale nucleus of power trusted with the life of a similarly nameless boy of indistinct minority status. Any citizen with a driver's license can serve on a murder trial jury, and it is the inclusive anonymity of this pillar of the American justice system that Rose is exposing as hypocritical and unreliable to its core. While Juror 11 is an immigrant from Europe and Juror 10 a slum-reared outsider of unknown ethnicity, there are no women nor people of color. Within this all-white cohort, Juror 4 is identified as an upper-class type who elicits some petty resentment from the lower class types against the rich and well-born. Because of the precarious nature of dominant-caste society for those on its lower rungs, like immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities, even this supposedly representative cross section of dominant American society is fraught with simmering tensions and mistrust of others' basic motives. Rose implies that the lack of empathy and common humanity between the twelve Anglo-European jurors makes it nearly impossible for them to find the dispassionate compromise necessary to acquit the defendant.

Then, as now, New York was a multicultural and racial melting pot whose justice system was legally integrated by the 1950s, though women and potential jurors of color were excluded by practical discrimination within the assembled jury selection pool. The fragility of the concept of justice is partly determined by the fact that those summoned by the local authority to serve as arbiters of guilt or reasonable doubt are themselves flawed with bigoted assumptions and resentments to project onto the accused and their interpretation of the facts.

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I am not too sure why you feel that there are only three main themes in this play. It is clear that any work of literature opens itself to a vast number of different interpretations, and this excellent play is no exception. However, the play does suggest in principal three general themes that we can identify as follows:

1) The nature of justice.

Clearly, the play's ending shows true justice being done. What begins as apparently a clear cut case, with various jury members wanting to get home to carry on with their lives, is saved by the stubborness and persistence of Juror Eight. However, it is made evident that justice is only won after a battle that suggests the fragile nature of justice. How many other jurys would have quickly made the wrong decision to save themselves the problem of seriously debating the case?

2) The responsibility of justice.

A part of the play that it is important not to ignore is the introduction that the Judge gives to the jurors, informing them of their role and responsibility:

I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully. You are faced with a grave responsibility.

The play points towards the vital role that we all have in ensuring that true justice is enacted. The play is as much a comment upon the justice system and our social responsibility as it is an excellent, gripping drama. Concepts such as justice, which the USA is based around, are only as strong as the individuals that help support and affirm such concepts.

3) The blindness of justice.

Traditionally, justice is depicted as a blind woman, carrying a sword in one hand and scales in the other. This blindness is essential to ensure that justice is not swayed by color, creed, or religion. Of course, this is something that Juror Ten does not exhibit. Note how he characterizes the defendant whose fate is being decided:

Bright! He's a common, ignorant slob. He don't even speak good English!

Prejudice is something that represents a barrier to true justice being enacted, and this is another central theme of the play.

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Write three theme statements on Twelve Angry Men.

I am going to assume that a "theme statement" is the same as a thesis statement, a statement that you can explain and support with evidence from a piece of literature. For your assignment over Twelve Angry Men, consider the events in the play and the characters. What do you believe to be true about them?

For instance, based on the evidence presented at trial, was the jury's verdict fair and just? The play is developed to suggest that the jury did reach a fair verdict when they found the boy not guilty. From this idea, you could write this as your theme statement: In Twelve Angry Men, the jury reached a fair verdict. Your job then would be to explain why this is true and to back up your discussion with examples and perhaps quotations from the play.

There are many statements you could make about the play and its characters that could be explained and supported with evidence from the play. For instance, are these true statements that you could explain and back up with facts?

Without Juror Number 8, the boy would have been unfairly convicted.

Some of the jurors showed irresponsible behavior.

The boy's attorney did not do a good job in defending him in court.

Those are just some suggestions to get you started. Again, begin by asking yourself, "What do I think is true about this play or the characters in it?" Good luck!

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