The trial of Tom Robinson is central to our understanding of racial and social prejudice in Maycomb. Harper Lee uses Tom Robinson's 'crime' to bring tensions in the town to a head and the author uses the trial as a way of making the ideas behind such tensions explicit for the reader.
The two people involved in the so-called crime, Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell, are at the very bottom of Maycomb society. Tom is black and Mayella one of the poorest of the poor whites. However, neither of them fits into the stereotypes held by the people of Maycomb. Tom is honest, hardworking and dependable, as Mr Link Deas's shouted testimony and his demeanour in court demonstrate. Mayella is a member of the poorest and most shiftless families in the town yet she looks after her brothers and sisters, keeps herself clean and tends to her geraniums in the most difficult of circumstances. It is clear that before the alleged rape a sort of friendship had grown up between Tom and Mayella.
Tom Robinson was probably the only person who was decent to (Mayella).
Unfortunately the ideas about race and society held at the time meant that contact between them could never be anything other than distant and respectful (quite apart from the fact that Tom was married anyway). But Mayella's yearning for some form of close human contact emerges during the trial. She had saved for almost a year to have enough nickels to give her brothers and sisters a treat in order to have her house empty when she invited Tom inside. When she made her advance to Tom he was caught by his inability to hit a white woman and the extreme taboo that Maycomb placed on any form of...
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...arrated by Scout is that her childish understanding is free of adult prejudice and expectations. She and Jem measure the proceedings against simple child-like ideas of truth and justice and find them grossly wanting. On the other hand Jem is an expert on court behaviour from watching her father on other occasions so she is able to give an insightful account into most aspects of the trial.
The Tom Robinson case shows the ugliness of both racial and social prejudice. Ultimately the jurors choose to vote along racial lines without regard for truth or justice. Mayella and Tom are both victims of Maycomb's prejudice but only Tom has to pay.
Jones, Carolyn. "Atticus Finch and the Mad Dog." The Southern Quarterly Summer 1996: 56-63.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York City, NY: J.B.Lippincott Company, 1990.
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