To Kill a Mockingbird Summary and Analysis
by Harper Lee
Tom Robinson is called to the witness stand. He tries to put his left hand upon the Bible, but it is a futile effort, as his left arm is entirely non-functional. The arm simply slips off the Bible again and again. Finally, the judge tells him his effort is sufficient and he can take the stand. Atticus questions Tom, first asking whether he has ever been convicted of a crime. Tom explains that he was once convicted for fighting because he could not pay the fine that would have released him. In an aside, the narrator explains that Atticus is showing how honest Tom is and that he has nothing to hide from the jury. Next, Tom gives his account of the Ewell incident.
In Tom's version, he says he passed by the Ewell house every day on his way to work at Mr. Link Deas's farm, where Tom picks cotton and does other farm work. Tom confirms that one day last spring, Mayella asked him to chop up an old chiffarobe with a hatchet, but that was long before the November day in question. After Tom performed that favor for her, Mayella often asked him to help her with odd jobs around the house as he passed by. She offered him a nickel the first time, but he refused payment, knowing that the family had no money. He said he helped her out because she didn't seem to have anyone else to help her, and that he never went onto the Ewell property without being invited. Scout thinks about how lonely Mayella is - she's so poor that white people won't befriend her, but black people will avoid her because she's white.
Atticus asks about the events on November 21 of that year. Tom says that he passed the Ewell house as usual, and everything seemed very quiet. Mayella asked him to come inside and fix a broken door, but when he got inside the house, the door didn't look broken. Then, Mayella shut the door behind him and said she had sent the children to town to get ice cream, having saved for a very long time to be able to give each child a nickel. Tom starts to leave, but she asks him to take a box down from on top of another chiffarobe. As Tom reached for the box, Mayella grabbed him around his legs. He was so startled that he overturned a chair. Next, she hugged him round the waist and kissed his cheek, and as Tom explains, said that, "she never kissed a grown man before an' she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her pap do to her don't count." Mayella asks him to kiss her back, and Tom asks her to let him out of the house. However, her back is to the door, and he doesn't want to force her to move. He knows that as a black man, if he lays a hand on her he could later be killed. Then Mr. Ewell arrives, happens upon the scene, calls his daughter a "goddamn whore," and tells her he will kill Tom. Tom runs away in fear.
Mr. Gilmer questions Tom next, and he does so fairly aggressively, addressing him only as "boy". Mr. Gilmer tries to get at Tom's motivations for helping Mayella, insinuating that he must have had ulterior motives for helping her. Tom finally says he just tried to help because he felt sorry for her, which stirs up the audience considerably, as it is unacceptable for a black man to feel sorry for a white woman. Mr. Gilmer asks whether Tom thinks Mayella was lying about asking him to chop up the chiffarobe in November. Tom avoids a potential trap by saying he thinks Mayella must be, "mistaken in her mind" about this and everything else. Mr. Gilmer asks why Tom ran if he had a clear conscience, and Tom said he was afraid of being tried in court, not for what he did, but for what he didn't do.
At this point, Dill starts to cry, and Scout takes him outside the courthouse. He says he can't bear to watch Mr. Gilmer behaving so disrespectfully toward Tom. Scout says that all lawyers do that and Mr. Gilmer didn't even seem to be trying as usual today. Dill points out that Atticus isn't like that. A sympathetic voice behind them agrees that it makes him sick too - they turn to see Mr. Dolphus Raymond.
Mr. Dolphus Raymond is known as the town drunk, because he always carries his drink in a brown paper bag, and tends to sway a bit in his walk. Mr. Raymond is also married to a black woman and has mixed children. When running from the courthouse, Dill and Scout run into Mr. Raymond and he offers Dill a sip of his drink. Scout is wary, but Mr. Raymond promises Dill it will make him feel better. Dill takes a sip and discovers Mr. Raymond is hiding a bottle of Coca-Cola in his infamous paper bag. Scout asks why he does such a thing, and Mr. Raymond explains he feels he has to give the population some reason for his odd behavior (being friendly toward black people). Mr. Raymond believes it's easier for people to handle strangeness when they have a reason to explain it. Thus, he pretends to be a drunkard. He says he thinks that children like Dill, who is so upset over the trial, haven't lost the instinct that tells them that it's wrong for white people to "give hell" to black people without consideration for their basic humanity.
Scout and Dill return to the courtroom, where Atticus is beginning his speech to the jury. Atticus explains that the case is very simple, because there is no medical evidence and very questionable testimony to prove Tom's guilt. Atticus explains that Mayella has, "broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society" by attempting to seduce a black man. He acknowledges her poverty and ignorance, but says, "I cannot pity her: she is white." He explains that Mayella followed her desires even though she was aware of the social taboos against her actions. Having broken one of society's strictest codes, she chose to, "put the evidence of her offense," namely Tom Robinson, away from her by testifying against him. Atticus accuses Mayella of trying to rid herself of the source of her own guilt.
Atticus suggests that Mr. Ewell beat his own daughter, as shown by Mayella's bruising on her right side. Mr. Ewell leads predominately with his left, while Tom can't punch with his left hand at all. Atticus points out that the case comes down to the word of a black man against the word of the white people, and that the Ewells' case depends upon the jury's assumption that "all black men lie." Uncharacteristically, Atticus loosens his tie and removes his jacket, which Scout and Jem are astounded to see, because he never walks about so casually. In his final remarks, Atticus speaks directly to the jury, earnestly reminding them that there are honest and dishonest black people just as there are honest and dishonest white people. He tells the jury that in a court of law, "all men are created equal." A court is, however, no better than the members of its jury, and he urges the jury to do their duty. As his speech comes to a close, Scout and Jem see Calpurnia moving toward the front of the court.
Calpurnia arrives with a note for Atticus from Aunt Alexandra, who is concerned that the children have been gone all day. The court witnesses this exchange, and then the children are pointed out to Atticus. He sends the children home, but allows them to return to hear the jury's verdict after they eat their dinner. The children return home, where Aunt Alexandra is saddened to hear that the three of them, particularly Scout, were at the courthouse. Everyone eats, and then walks back to court. The jury is still deliberating, but the courthouse is still packed. Usually, people leave to go eat or walk around the square, but due to the weightiness of this case, everyone has stayed inside the courthouse, eagerly awaiting the decision. Everyone is silent and still, and Scout feels the sensation of chilliness in the room. Finally, the jury returns. Scout notices that not a single member of the jury looks at Tom, and she takes this as a bad sign. Meanwhile, she and Jem can't believe that anyone could convict Tom because he is so clearly innocent. Judge Taylor polls the jury, and every man declares Tom guilty. Atticus whispers something to Tom, then exits the courtroom. All the black people in the balcony rise to their feet to honor Atticus as he passes them.
Jem is crying and angry - he thought that the case was clearly in Tom's favor. Atticus is exhausted and when Jem asks him how the jury could have done it he responds, "I don't know, but they did it. They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it - seems like only children weep." However, the next morning, he explains that there's a good possibility for the case to be appealed in a higher court. Calpurnia reveals that the black community has left Atticus all sorts of appreciative gifts including chickens, bread and produce that have filled the house. Upon seeing this generosity, Atticus's eyes fill with tears. He says he's very grateful but tells Calpurnia that they shouldn't give him such things when times are so hard.
Dill comes by for breakfast and tells everyone that Miss Rachel thinks that, "if a man like Atticus Finch wants to butt his head against a stone wall it's his head." The children go outside and Miss Maudie saves them from Miss Stephanie's nosy gossip by inviting them over for cake. Miss Maudie says that Atticus is someone who does other people's unpleasant jobs for them. Jem is discouraged and disappointed with the people of Maycomb, who he formerly thought were "the best people in the world." He thinks that no one but Atticus worked on Tom's behalf, but Miss Maudie points out that many people helped, including Mr. Tate the sheriff, the black community, and especially Mr. Taylor the judge, who offered Atticus the case in the first place. Mr. Tate assigned Atticus to the case because he knew Atticus would truly dedicate himself to the cause. Miss Maudie says that even though she knew Atticus couldn't win, he did manage to keep the jury out in discussion for longer than anyone else could, which is an achievement in and of itself. She says, "we're making a step - it's just a baby step, but it's a step."
As they leave, Dill says he wants to be a clown when he grows up, because, "there's ain't one thing in this world I can do about folks except laugh, so I'm gonna join the circus and laugh my head off." The children see Mr. Avery, Miss Stephanie, and Miss Rachel discussing something with animation in the street. Apparently Mr. Ewell saw Atticus by the post office, spat in his face, and told him that, "he'd get him if it took the rest of his life."
Atticus is unconcerned about Mr. Ewell's threat, and tells his worried children that Mr. Ewell, who has been publicly discredited by the trial, just needs to feel like he is retaliating against someone, and better it be Atticus than the Ewell children.
Tom is being held on a prison farm, and his wife and children are not permitted to visit him. Atticus thinks there's a good chance he'll be spared execution by having his sentence commuted by the governor. Atticus comments that too many people are sent to death based upon purely circumstantial evidence. Jem thinks that juries should be done away with, because they can't make reasonable decisions. Atticus responds that men don't behave rationally in some situations, and will always take a white man's word over a black man's. Atticus tells Jem that any white man who cheats a black man is trash.
Jem and Atticus talk about what keeps people off of juries. Women can't serve on juries in Alabama (which Scout takes exception to), and many people don't want to get involved in court cases because their livelihood depends in some way upon maintaining good favor with both parties involved in a case. Jem thinks that the jury decided quickly, but Atticus reminds him that it took a few hours, which is much longer than usual. Typically, a case like Tom's would be settled in a matter of minutes. Atticus sees this as a sign of the beginnings of change for the better. Also, Atticus reveals that he learned that the one jury member who kept everyone out so long was a Cunningham who defended Tom's innocence. Atticus thinks that all Cunninghams will stand solidly behind anyone who wins their respect, without fail - and the incident at the jailhouse won the Finch family great respect.
Upon learning that his father believed Tom to be innocent, Scout wants to invite Walter Cunningham over for lunch more often, but Aunt Alexandra puts her foot down, saying that the Cunninghams aren't the right sort of people for Scout to spend time with. Scout can be gracious to Walter and polite, but can't invite him over because "he is trash."
Scout is upset about this and goes to Jem to talk about it. Jem tries to cheer her up and proudly shows her the beginnings of chest hair, which Scout pretends to see and congratulates him on. Jem explains he wants to go out for football next year. Next, Jem tries to comfort Scout by explaining that Aunt Alexandra is just trying to make her into "a lady." He says that there are four different kinds of people in Maycomb county: "ordinary" people like themselves, people like the Cunninghams in the woods, people like the Ewells by the dump, and black people. Each class looks down upon and despises the class below it. The two try to resolve exactly what separates and distinguishes the categories of white people. Background doesn't seem to matter, because all the families are equally old. Jem thinks these class definitions have to do with how long the family has been literate. Scout disagrees and thinks, "there's just one kind of folks. Folks." Jem says he used to think so as well, but he doesn't understand why they despise one another if that's the case. Jem seems very frustrated with society, and adds that maybe Boo Radley stays inside because he wants to.
Jem and Dill have gone swimming, and wouldn't let Scout come along because they were planning to skinny dip. Aunt Alexandra has ladies over for a meeting of the Missionary Society of Maycomb, and keeps Scout in attendance in order for her to learn to be a lady. The women discuss the plight of the Mruna people, a non-Christian group in Africa who are said to live in squalor and are being converted thanks to the efforts of a missionary named J. Grimes Everett. Scout doesn't enjoy being around women but does her best to take part. The discussion moves toward the topic of Tom's wife, Helen. Apparently the black cooks and field hands in town were discontented during the week after the trial. One of the ladies comments on how much she dislikes a, "sulky darky," and says that when her black female servant was slow to perform her duties following the trial, she reminded her that Jesus never complained. Another lady says that no amount of education will ever make "Christians" out of black people, and that, "there's no lady safe in her bed these nights." Miss Maudie tersely shows her differing opinion on this topic. Aunt Alexandra magically smoothes everything over. Another lady says that Northerners are hypocrites who claim to give blacks equal standing but actually don't mix socially with them, whereas in the South people are very up-front about their lack of desire to share the same lifestyle.
Scout remembers that Calpurnia told Atticus that the day Tom went to prison, he lost hope. Atticus couldn't promise Tom an acquittal so he didn't try to reassure Tom by giving him potentially false hope. Suddenly Atticus enters the house and requests Aunt Alexandra and Calpurnia's presence in the kitchen. He reveals that Tom tried to escape from prison and was shot to death by the prison guards. Apparently the guards tried to tell him to stop and fired warning shots, but Tom kept running. Atticus needs Calpurnia to go with him to Tom's wife to give her the news. The two of them go, leaving Aunt Alexandra to tell Miss Maudie in the kitchen that she's concerned about Atticus. The trial has taken a lot out of him and it seems to be unending. Miss Maudie thinks that the town has paid Atticus a high tribute by trusting him to do right and uphold justice. These people are the small handful who know that blacks should be given justice, and who have "background." The two women are quite shaken, but then join the other women effortlessly. Scout feels proud of her Aunt and of Miss Maudie, and for the first time feels inclined to be ladylike, thinking that, "if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I."
Tom's crippled state is more than just a plot device. It also serves as an emblem for his disadvantage in life as a black man. His arm was injured in a cotton gin, a machine used primarily by slaves, and later, poor black workers in the cotton fields. The legacy of slavery cripples Tom in court and in his everyday life, just as his actual injury is a constant burden for him.
Mayella's sad situation comes out more fully in Tom's testimony. Her short comment about, "what her pap do to her don't count" hints that her father probably abuses her, possibly sexually. Mayella is as lonely as the "mixed" children Jem spoke of earlier, as she belongs to neither black nor white circles.
The idea that a black person could feel sorry for a white person refutes all of Maycomb's social assumptions, making Tom's courthouse comment extremely provocative. By nature, black life is thought to be inferior to white life, making Tom's feelings towards Mayella subvert everything that the town's social fabric is based upon. As Jem explains in chapter 23, every class looks down upon the class below it - so black people, as the lowest class, should not feel pity for anyone.
Dill's feeling of illness during Mr. Gilmer's cross-examination shows his extreme sensitivity, as a young child, to the ugliness of society's prejudices and evil. Scout tries to see Mr. Gilmer's actions as part of the method of the job he is trying to do, following Atticus's advice to try to "get into a person's mind" in order to understand them better. However, it is indisputable that Mr. Gilmer does not behave as honorably as Atticus. Atticus speaks to all the witnesses with respect, while Mr. Gilmer demeans Tom in court, calling him "boy" and sneering at him. Dill's classic method of managing uncomfortable situations is to run away, and he does so here, fleeing the courtroom with Scout at his side.
In Chapter 20, Atticus appeals to the jury's sense of dignity, and in putting together the facts of the case, he stresses the simplicity of the evidence and shows that the facts point toward Tom's innocence. As later becomes apparent, Atticus doesn't really believe that the jury will set Tom free, even though he hopes they will, as evidenced by his final statement, under his breath, "In the name of God, believe him." All Atticus can hope for is to leave an impression upon the town by exposing the truth for all to see.
Atticus's treatment of Mayella reveals that though a victim of many cruelties, she has chosen to bring cruelty upon Tom, and must not be excused for this. As he points out, Mayella wants to protect herself by placing her guilt on Tom, knowing that her actions will bring about his death because the jury will believe her, a white woman, and not him, a black man. Thus, she manipulates the unfairness of her society toward her own ends.
Mr. Raymond, as Scout notes elsewhere, is a person of high enough social standing that he can act in very unorthodox ways and have his behavior accepted not only because, as he says, he gives the people a "reason" with which to interpret his behavior, but also through the usual expression, "it's just his way." The ability to be pardoned for certain eccentricities isn't allowed to people of all levels of society. Mr. Raymond owns a great deal of land and is a successful businessman. However, if an Ewell displayed similar behavior, he or she would not be excused so easily.
By Chapter 21, Jem was sure that the trial would go in Tom's favor after all the evidence was revealed. Therefore, the pronouncement of guilt comes as a complete surprise to his naÃ¯ve mind, and he feels physical pain upon hearing each jury-member's "guilty". Jem is psychologically wounded by the results of the trial, feeling that his previously good opinion of the people of Maycomb (and people in general) has been seriously marred. Jem's trust in the rationality of the people has been beset by the knowledge that people can act in irrationally evil ways. He finds himself struggling to conceive of how otherwise good people can behave terribly throughout the remainder of the book.
Despite the unfavorable verdict, the black community pays tribute to Atticus for the respect he has shown their community and the human race. Atticus dedicated himself to the trial, which everyone knew was a lost cause. He tried as best he could to allow Tom to go free, and worked to teach the townspeople a lesson by exposing the unfairness of their collective opinions. Just as he fathers Jem and Scout in good moral virtues, he tries to teach the town a lesson and infuse them with more virtuous ideas.
In Chapter 22, Atticus reaches a point of frustration immediately after the trial, but his usual optimism returns the next day when he begins talking about the chance for an appeal.
Though he acknowledges that, "they'll do it again," and understands the reality that evil will always persist in some form, he seems to need to believe that there is hope for the future and the inherent goodness of mankind in order to keep himself going. Exhausted and pessimistic the night after the trial, he seems restored the next morning, as if his ability to exist and his hope are closely intertwined.
Miss Maudie makes Jem aware of an entire network of people who were quietly working in Tom's favor. Her use of the word "we" to represent them not only creates the sense that there is a cohesive group with a communal vision, but also makes the children feel like they are now included as a part of it. The trial has affected their lives in many ways, and now they are aware that they are by default going to part of the ongoing aim of taking "steps" toward fairness and equality.
Dill's comment about being a clown follows his tendency for escapism. He finds reality so difficult to manage, that he defines himself in another, separate reality where he can be safe from the trauma that Jem feels and the confusion that Scout feels as a result of being so closely intertwined with the town's events. Dill also seems to typify a certain idea of the work of the artist in his efforts to create a separate reality for himself that serves as a vantage point from which to see the events going on in the world. He perceives things well, but will not become caught up in them, and will treat everything as a performance that is ultimately meaningful only in that it is a reaction against the real.
Atticus is overly hopeful again in Chapter 23: his opinion of Mr. Ewell shows a lack of understanding for the ultimate possibility for evil inherent in some people.
Jem is unsure whether people can be trusted to serve on juries, based on the jury that served in Tom's case, and Atticus points out some of the factors that make juries less than ideal. Some people are not willing to do right by serving on a jury because they fear public opinion. For instance, a shop owner would not want to lose business by sitting on a jury in a dispute between two customers. Fear seems to be the main motivating factor that makes individuals shirk the task of upholding what they know to be right. Also, as Atticus points out, the state itself is unfair by not allowing women (or for that matter blacks) to serve on juries.
Even after all the events of the trial, Scout continues to believe that all people are the same. She believes all people are "folks," and that they are neither all good nor all bad, and sometimes they act out of weakness. She can't determine what makes her family "better" than the Cunninghams. Jem seems to still want a reason to explain why some people act the way they do; he feels that he has outgrown Scout's viewpoint and needs a new one that is calibrated to his more mature mind. His comment about Boo shows that on the whole, he is feeling mistrustful toward humanity.
Just as Chapter 12 gives insight into black society in Maycomb, Chapter 24 gives insight into white women's society. Scout's experience with the Missionary Society women is somewhat mixed. She observes the hypocrisy with which the women try to do good for a remote culture like the Mrunas, but neglect the needs and sufferings of the black community in their own town. Particularly disconcerting is the way the women discriminate freely against the blacks, complaining about "sulky darkies" and making ridiculous insinuations that black men, spurred on by the trial, will start coming into their beds. The women's provincialism comes out when they speak of the Mruna people - it is evident that they have no understanding of how another way of worship could be just as spiritually meaningful as the religion they have always known. They also refuse to believe that the blacks of Maycomb are Christians, although as shown in Chapter 12, they are clearly worshipping the same God. Miss Maudie is the only woman who seems to show any appreciation for conscience, but when she speaks up, Aunt Alexandra is required by civil code to move the conversation pleasant again. Thus, the ladies never seem to discuss anything meaningful.
Throughout the book, women are often described in relation to sweet things: for instance in Chapter 1 they are described as, "soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum," Miss Caroline is described as looking like a peppermint drop, and the ladies gathered at the Finch household are said to smell heavenly and make many remarks about Aunt Alexandra's dainty tarts. Even Miss Maudie is best known, outside of her gardening, for her cake, and Aunt Alexandra is famous for her Christmas dinner. Women seem, in these descriptions, somewhat superficial and transient. The delicate desserts they seem to epitomize are hardly fortifying or necessary--they mainly look pretty and behave pleasantly--but lack real substance. Scout, who has a very strong sense of character, does not fit this comparison, and fights against becoming a part of this community.
When meaningful news does arrive, the women are spared from hearing it, as Atticus takes Aunt Alexandra into the kitchen. The news of Tom's attempt at escape, and his loss of hope after his sentence, occurs in the middle of the women's meeting about doing good in the world, which points to their hypocrisy and wasted "moral" zeal, and gives context to Tom's feelings of hopelessness. However, Scout does note that there is an element of challenge involved in being a lady. She understands this when watching Aunt Alexandra and Miss Maudie put themselves together after hearing the tragic news and rejoining the group. The ability to maintain an appearance of tact and civility above all other events strikes Scout as an appealing skill.
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