To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee explores a variety of themes. Some themes deal with how bravery and cowardice can be defined, and what hypocrisy really means. Some discuss prejudice, and where and how it works. Still others explore themes of changes coming about in society, and changes coming about in individuals, especially adolescents (or coming of age). In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson’s trial is a major event, not only in serving as the climax of the story, and thus in bringing out these major themes, but also in how it effects two characters, viz, Jem Finch and Bob Ewell. Both went to the trial with certain high expectations, but when these expectations were not met, they were both deeply effected. Harper Lee uses various literary devices to present how both Jem Finch and Bob Ewell were effected by the trial, and how these effects bring out the major themes of the novel.
According to Scout’s narrative, Jem was extremely influenced by the decision of the jury. When Judge Taylor is polling the jury, Scout tells the readers about Jem: “his shoulders jerked as if each ‘guilty’ was a separate stab between them” (Lee 214). Such a comparison of the word ‘guilty’ to a knife-stab in the back, serves to show the extent to which Jem was shocked and hurt by the verdict. This is because Jem idealistically thought that Tom would be acquitted. This example further serves to highlight how children tend to be idealists, but as they grow up, they learn that life is not in fact ideal. Thus Scout’s description also serves to show one step in Jem’s ‘coming of age’.
The jury’s decision leaves Jem disillusioned. He loses faith not only in the judicial system, but also in all humanity. He tells Miss Maudie, “I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that’s what they seemed like” (218). When ‘Maycomb folks’ do not come up to his expectations, he questions his trust in people. This serves to bring out another important theme of the novel, that of appearances and reality, because shows that what seems to be, may not actually be, and that hypocrisy exists at all levels of society.
Appearances and reality is a major theme also brought up when Jem discusses the jury system with his father, and Atticus tells Jem, “people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box” (223). People serving on juries are supposed to be unbiased, but as Atticus Finch tells his son, in most cases they are not. This also serves to highlight the prejudice that exists in society, one of the major themes discussed throughout the novel.
Jem’s resolve, though not too explicit, to bring about change in the judicial system, presents two major themes. When Jem says to Miss Maudie, “can’t any Christian judges an’ lawyers make up for heathen juries. … Soon’s I get grown—” (219), it shows a change coming about in Jem—he is growing up, and is learning how he must deal, and cope, with life’s unpleasant facts, in his own way. At the same time, this discussion points to a subtle change that is coming about in society—some people are standing up to racial prejudice—something that Miss Maudie calls “a baby-step” (219), and Atticus calls “the shadow of a beginning” (225).
Jem also learns a lesson about bravery, and comes to realize that bravery does not always mean standing up to one’s enemy. His father’s reaction to Bob Ewell spitting him the face was, as Jem learns, as brave as anyone’s could be, because in not standing up to the man, he “saved Mayella Ewell an extra beating” (221). In this way, the theme of bravery that has been discussed throughout the novel, is further highlighted.
Bob Ewell is also deeply influenced by Tom Robinson’s trial. He had come to court thinking that he would “be a hero” as Atticus tells Aunt Alexandra, “but all he got for his pain was…was okay, we’ll convict this Negro but get back to your dump” (253). Such an attitude by society indeed shocks Bob Ewell, as he was expecting the opposite, and further elucidates how prejudiced society can be. In this case, the prejudice is not racial, because Bob Ewell is white, but he is ‘trash’, thus society treats him with contempt, and no sign of equality.
Another thing that shocks Bob Ewell besides society’s reaction after the trial, is how he is treated during the trial. He is ridiculed and made a fool of, especially by Judge Taylor, who, we are told, looked at him like he were a “three-legged chicken or a square egg” (253), and Atticus Finch proves him to be a liar. While the white audience at court thinks he is “a card” (179), Judge Taylor and Atticus Finch destroy “his last shred of credibility” (221). This again points to a subtle change coming about in society, exemplified by these two men, about tolerance and equality.
As a result of Judge Taylor and Atticus Finch’s combined efforts to proving Bob Ewell in the wrong, Ewell seeks revenge by trying to harm both these men. He attempts to burgle Judge Taylor’s house, and in trying to kill Atticus Finch’s children, himself gets killed.
Events affect a person most deeply when s/he least expects them to. In other words, if a person has certain expectations from an event, but things fail to meet his/her expectations, the effects can be disastrous. In the case of Tom Robinson’s trial, the convicted man himself went through a terrible ordeal, but Jem Finch and Bob Ewell were also greatly effected by the trial mostly because of their high expectations from it. Harper Lee effectively uses the trial scene in bringing out various themes through this shock that the two characters experience.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1960. New York: Warner Books, 1982.