Harper Lee’s semi-autobiographical novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” deals with a number of important themes, such as prejudice in society. This theme is addressed successfully in the dramatic key incident of the novel – the trial of Tom Robinson. At this time in the deep South of America, racial tensions were high and Lee uses this key incident and indeed the novel as a whole as a way of exploring the evils of prejudice.
The main protagonist of the novel is Scout Finch, who we see grow from the age of 6 to the age of 9. The novel is set in Maycomb County, Alabama in the 1930s, and follows the exploits of Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill. This coming-of-age story is interwoven with the story of Tom Robinson, a young negro who has been accused of rape, and whom Atticus, Scout’s father, is defending in court. One of the key incidents of the novel is the trial of Tom Robinson. This key incident is very dramatic and exposes the racist and prejudiced views of the people of the town.
The prejudiced views of the town are explored right from the start of the trial chapter. At the beginning of the chapter, Jem asks Miss Maudie if she will be going to watch the trial. She replies:
"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."
Miss Maudie describes the trial as ‘morbid’, suggesting that people get a sick fascination with the trial and ultimately Tom Robinson’s fate. Coupled with the description of the trial as a ‘Roman carnival’, we see that people in Maycomb are using the fate of this poor (and obviously innocent) man as entertainment. The town do not see Tom as another human being like them – instead he is a thing to be tormented and tortured for their own sick entertainment. We also see here, however, that people like Miss Maudie (and the Finches themselves) do not take any pleasure in this – indeed, Miss Muadie calls Tom a poor devil. This shows us that Miss Maudie is kind and compassionate and sees Tom as a human being – it also stands in stark contrast to the rest of the town, and makes their prejudiced views seem even worse.
Later in the chapter, Mr Ewell gives his testimony to the court. His language contrasts greatly with Miss Maudie, and perhaps reflects more accurately the views of the other white people in the town. In his statement, he tells the court that:
“I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!”
Mr Ewell’s lack of education stands out here – he adopts an ungrammatical form when he says “I seen”, and his description of Tom as a “black nigger” is redundant. This shows that similar to his children (such as Burris), Bob Ewell is an uneducated man. It shows the strength of feeling against Tom Robinson in the white community that they would believe the ignorant Bob Ewell over the arguments of the far more articulate Atticus Finch. This perhaps demonstrates how deep set the racist views of Maycomb are. We also find the language used by Bob Ewell deeply offensive today, but the fact that his statement is not challenged in court at all shows the institutionalised racism in the system at this time in the American South. Ewell compares Tom to an animal, describing him as “ruttin’” on Mayella. The fact that this is accepted by the court reveals a lot about the prevailing attitudes of the time.
Finally, Tom Robinson himself reveals the dangers of living as a black man and facing up to the prejudices of Maycomb. During questioning, he is asked why he ran, was it because he was:
"Scared of arrest, scared you'd have to face up to what you did?"
"No suh, scared I'd hafta face up to what I didn't do."
By running, Mr Gilmer argues that Tom admits his guilt. Tom on the other hand, knows that simply being accused of rape in Maycomb, where juries are all-white, mostly from the rural, less informed or well educated parts of the town, is as good as being found guilty. Tom knows what Atticus is desperate not to face up to: he would be found guilty from the moment he was first accused.
In the climax of this scene, Atticus delivers his closing arguments. Here, we see him challenge the prevailing view of Maycomb society, rallying against the racism and prejudice that is so apparent. He says:
“Some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.”
In this dramatic and powerful speech, Atticus lays his own reputation on the line to defend what is right. He makes an assertion that to us is perfectly reasonable, but to the people of Maycomb would be unthinkable. Atticus is clearly a good orator – he uses the rule of three and repetition of the word “some”. He is using every technique in his arsenal to sway the jury towards the truth, but his situation is hopeless. He refers to the “human race” in order to negate the assumption by the people of Maycomb that Tom is somehow lesser than them. To the very end, Atticus gives his all to defend Tom fairly. However, it is not enough. Even in the face of an educated and articulate man offering inalienable truths to the jury, they cannot bring themselves to acquit a black man. This shows just how terribly racism has Maycomb in its grip.
Later that night, a dumbfounded Jem asks Atticus how the jury could possibly have found Tom guilty. An exhausted Atticus replies:
"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 that only children weep. Good night."
Here, Atticus describes how prejudice is simply a fact of life in Maycomb. When he says “Before… tonight… again”, he offers the bleak view that Maycomb is trapped in a cycle of prejudice which will not break easily. He also says that when they do convict, it seems “only children weep”. Here, Atticus explains the innocence of children. Scout and Jem are not yet affected by the prejudice of Maycomb. This suggests that prejudice is something which is learned, and perhaps ironically shows that it is able to be overcome – by people like Atticus standing up for what is right and challenging attitudes.
In conclusion, Harper Lee uses the trial scene in “To Kill A Mockingbird” to expose the evils of prejudice. She convincing recreates a profoundly racist Southern American town, where latent racial prejudice is so engrained that even the most starkly reasonable and empathetic character cannot convince the white people to change their ways, even if it means putting a black man to death. The climactic scene builds so that Tom could not possibly be found guilty, and yet he is – this more than anything demonstrates how deep seated the views of the town are.