The Trial in To Kill a Mockingbird
The trial of Tom takes up a great deal of space in the novel because it gives Harper Lee a chance to do an in-depth exploration of characters and situations. The people involved in the case are Bob and Mayella Ewell, Tom Robinson and Atticus Finch. The alleged rape of Mayella by Tom allows Harper Lee to look in detail at issues of racial and social prejudice in Maycomb.
Bob Ewell is the villain of the novel and, as a result of the trial
, he tries to get revenge on Atticus and his family. In the trial itself he is revealed as a very unpleasant character. We learn that he drinks and sometimes leaves his family for days, he is violent and he may even be committing incest with Mayella. Atticus establishes that he is left-handed and that Mayella was probably beaten up by a left-handed man - it seems that he, and not Tom Robinson, beat up Mayella after he saw Mayella trying to kiss Tom. Bob therefore lies during the trial and is prepared to sacrifice the life of an innocent man
for the sake of his daughter's reputation. His unpleasant behaviour during the trial and his assumption that everybody will be on his side against a black man convince the reader that he is a thoroughly unpleasant character.
Mayella Ewing also lies in court but for different reasons to her father. She is the only responsible member of one of the poorest families in Maycomb. She looks after herself and her brothers and sisters and even tries to bring some beauty into their lives by growing geraniums. Her family is so poor that white people will have nothing to do with her and, at that time, it was not possible for her to be friendly with black people. Scout calls her "the loneliest person in the world". Tom Robinson
passed her house every day on his way to work and, according to Scout, he was probably the only person who was ever nice to her. Tom's evidence at the trial shows that she had planned to make a pass at him for a long time. It took her nearly a year to save enough money to send all her brothers and sisters into town to get ice creams. When she and Tom were alone together she tried to kiss him but she was interrupted by the arrival of her father. At that time in the 1930s there was a very strong prejudice against white women being involved with black men and if the fact that she had kissed Tom of her own accord emerged,she would have been shunned by everyone. She would rather let Tom die than let this happen.
Tom is the innocent victim of Mayella's loneliness. He helped Mayella over a long period of time and always behaved courteously and respectfully around her. When Mayella tried to kiss him he didn't know what to do. He couldn't hit a white woman to keep her away from him nor could he allow her to kiss him - he ran away when Bob Ewell arrived knowing that whatever he did would get him into trouble. In the trial Tom's innocence is proved by the fact that only his right arm is useable. He couldn't have held Mayella and raped her in the way that she described, and her injuries were the result of a beating from a left-handed man. He is honest and hard-working but he offends the jury by saying that he felt sorry for Mayella. This was not an appropriate feeling for a black person to have about even the poorest white at that time. In spite of his obvious innocence Tom is convicted of the crime.
The trial gives the readers a chance to see Atticus Finch at work. Atticus is unusual in that his behaviour is always the same both in and out of court (unlike Mr Gilmer who is so unpleasant to Tom that it makes Dill cry but who is, according to Scout, decent enough at other times). His politeness is seen as offensive by Mayella who is not used to being treated decently and it is clear that he takes no pleasure in revealing the true nature of Mayella's actions. In his summing up, Atticus tries to defend the idea that all men are equal before the law, but he is unable to overcome the basic prejudices of the jury. The only mark of his success is that they take an unusual length of time to come to their decision. Atticus was appointed to defend Tom and he upset people merely by doing his job. In spite of the verdict, the black people of the town appreciated his efforts and on the day after the trial they sent large amounts of food to his house in gratitude.
The trial reveals a great deal about the prejudices that existed in Maycomb in the 1930s. Mayella would not have tried to kiss Tom if social prejudice had not excluded her from white society - Mayella does not even seem to understand the idea of 'friends' when Atticus asks her about them. The arrival of Bob Ewell at the wrong moment involved several aspects of racial prejudice. White women were not supposed to have anything to do with black men and Bob is so shocked by his daughter's behaviour that he beats her savagely. Once the charge of rape is brought, Tom becomes the victim of prejudices about black men and white women. These are so strong that the townspeople's first reaction is to lynch Tom without a trial. When Atticus agrees to defend Tom, he and his children come in for a great deal of verbal, and some physical, abuse. In the trial itself Atticus says that Bob and Mayella have assumed that they will automatically be believed over a black person. Atticus asks the jury to try to overcome this prejudice but it is too ingrained for him to succeed and, besides, the jury had probably been offended by Tom's remark that he felt sorry for Mayella.
The whole trial is viewed from Scout's point of view. This works well because as a lawyer's daughter she is very familiar with court procedures and even some of the characters like the judge and Mr Gilmer. She is therefore able to write about things accurately but because she is a child she is still capable of being shocked by the injustice she sees in front of her. The purpose of any trial is to make things plain for the jury and in doing this Harper Lee also makes things plain for the reader.