Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird Discussion: Chapters 11-20

As we enter the second set of chapters for our book discussion, pressure is growing on Jim and Scout in Maycombe as their father continues to defend accused black laborer Tom Robinson. The prejudice of many of the townspeople appears in mean, spiteful comments by schoolchildren towards
the two children about their father's work. In the case of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, her mean attack on Atticus is enough to send Jim over the edge, cutting and hacking at the old lady's Camellia flowers. Partly as punishment, Atticus sends Jim to read to Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose every evening as she lies in bed, every evening growing quieter and quieter until she sends Jim (and Scout) away. When Mrs. Dubose passes away Atticus reveals that reading to her was a lesson for Jim in true bravery, as Mrs. Dubose had been trying to break herself of a morphine addiction the whole time Jim was going to read to her.The summer wears on, and Calpurnia takes the children to her church while Atticus is away - they have a chance to see how the black community of Maycombe lives, far away from the rest of the society they know, and hear more about Tom Robinson's family, who suffer as tom is unable to work while in jail. Soon afterward Aunt Alexandra appears, in an attempt to "teach the children some manners" and have a mother figure around the house. Aunt Alexandra has very specific ideas of the Finch family's place in society, and how they rank among the different social classes of the town, ideas that Scout rejects.

Dill reappears, having run away from his parents. Atticus arranges for Dill to stay the summer as he has in the past. Though happy to see Dill, the children are worried by the darker turn the Tom Robinson case has taken. First, a group of men from town appear at Atticus' door to get him to drop the case. Then, Atticus leaves home for the county jail, to keep Tom Robinson from being lynched by a mob of angry townspeople unwilling to let the case come to trial. They back off only when Scout appears with Jim and dill, and reminds the men that they are individuals after all, with children of their own, and not simply a senseless mob. Scout struggles to understand how people she knows, like Mr. Cunningham, would be willing to kill another person without a trial, or threaten Atticus to do so.

One day not long after, the children notice a commotion all around town- it seems that anybody and everybody is coming to Maycombe. Talking to their neighbor, Miss Maudie, they find out that the trial of Tom Robinson is taking place, and they rush to observe the events. Finding a place with the black church community upstairs, they watch as the prosecutor, Mr. Gilmer, and Atticus examine the first witness, Sherriff Heck Tate. Tom Robinson stands accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a member of the lower class Ewell family who live out in the back woods and whose patriarch, Bob Ewell, is a notorious drunkard. Atticus gets Sherriff Tate to admit that Mayella was beaten up all on the right side of her face - her right side. It is very unlikely Tom Robinson beat her up, as his left arm is useless following an accident with a piece of farm machinery.

Bob Ewell takes the stand, treating Atticus with contempt and asserting that Tom Robinson raped his daughter, as though his word alone is enough to condemn Tom. Atticus points out that Bob did nothing to help his daughter after the alleged rape, such as calling a doctor, and tricks Mr. Ewell into showing that he is left-handed - and thus more likely to have beaten up his daughter than Tom Robinson. Mayella Ewell follows her father to the stand, telling a story of Tom Robinson taking advantage of her after she asks for his help in breaking apart a chiffarobe, a kind of wardrobe. Atticus, while treating her with all politeness and kindness, shows how flimsy her testimony is, riddled with contradictions. When Mayella breaks down and runs off, a brief recess allows the children something of a break in the proceedings.

Finally, Atticus Finch calls Tom Robinson to take the stand. Tom tells his own version of the story: As he was passing by the Ewell residence, Mayella asked him for help busting up a chiffarobe, and he gladly helped her without asking for money. This wasn't the first time though - she asked for his help again and again on many occasions and each time he obliged. Finally, one day she tried to kiss him, and he pulled back, aware of the dangerous position this would put him in, and had to flee when bob Ewell arrived. Atticus leaves it to the court's imagination what Bob Ewell did when he saw his daughter trying to kiss a black man. Sickened by the proceedings, Dills feels he has to leave to court, and Scout goes with him.

They return just in time for Atticus' closing statement. His damning statement asserts that not one shred of evidence has shown that any rape took place, while laying out an alternate series of events: Mayella Ewell, neglected by her father and constantly beset by her many younger siblings, longed for any kind of escape, and so took to inviting Tom Robinson over just to have some kind of company. When she tried to kiss
him, though, her father saw and beat her terribly for the offence. The story of Tom attacking her was made up later to cover up what Bob Ewell had done. Atticus calls on the equality of men before the law guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence as a guideline for the jury in carrying out the truth of the law rather than the easy way of following what society already expected. Asking the jury to do their duty in the name of God, he then finishes his statement just as Calpurnia appears in court.

Review written by Andrew Leber, State Dept.

Question: What do you think of Atticus's ways of dealing with his children? Throughout he's criticized about how he raised them, do you think people are justified with their criticism?

Question by Noor


  1. Great review. :)
    I think the part about Mrs. Dubose was really interesting, figuring out why she was this weird. Morphine and how she managed to overcome it. I liked that substory in the book. Very humane. Though she was mean to atticus, his politeness always amazes me.

  2. I think Atticus realizes that the way he raises his children and the way he stands up for what he believes in makes life harder for them. However, I don't think he would have it any other way. He understands that the prejudice and racism in the thoughts and acts of the many people around them will some day be understood for the ugliness they truly are, and he wants to ensure that his children grow up knowing to do what is right rather than what is merely expedient. At the same time, he is unwiling to openly confront others about their beliefs, and so he remains ever polite with others, persevering in his work. The only time he fully attacks what other people think (not just when talking to Scout or to a friend but the whole town) is when he sums up the case of Tom Robinson. Then, with everyone paying attention, he attacks the injustice he sees as pervading the country, and the danger that it poses to the freedoms that Americans claim to espouse.

  3. I think Atticus came under a lot of criticism from his town because he seemed to be born in the wrong age - it was full of very obvious institutional racism, and not helped by the fact that this is a small Southern town which is mostly white. Of course I don't think they are justified with their criticism at all - they were so narrow-minded. But then, if you take Atticus' own advice and walk around in their shoes for a while I guess that their behavior is actually not out of the ordinary, because it's how they were brought up to behave (even though that still doesn't excuse it!).

    He's one of my favorite characters from any novel!