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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee




As Jem was the member of the Finch family most deeply disappointed by Tom Robinson's conviction, so he is the one most deeply affected by Tom's death. He and Dill happen to meet Atticus on the road and go with him to break the news to Tom's widow. The sight of Helen Robinson fainting dead away at the terrible news is one that Jem cannot put out of his mind. After that day, Jem goes through a period during which he cannot stand even to see Scout kill an insect.

Scout is saddened, too, but she is also objective enough to understand that the manner of Tom's death has given the white people of Maycomb an excuse to believe that their prejudices about blacks were right all along. If Tom had been patient, the gossips say, Atticus might have been able to win him his freedom on appeal. Instead, he acted impulsively and irresponsibly in trying to escape, especially since there was no real chance of his succeeding. Scout takes another view of Tom's act: Tom had given up on white justice and decided to take his fate into his own hands.

An editorial by Mr. Underwood, the newspaper owner who came to Atticus' aid on the night of the attempted lynching, expresses a similar view. Mr. Underwood writes that killing a crippled man like Tom Robinson is a sin- as bad as shooting a songbird.

Hearing about Mr. Underwood's editorial, you can't help but recall Atticus' earlier warning to the children that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. In this case, Tom Robinson- an innocent, physically handicapped man- is being compared to the mockingbird. Scout feels sure that the newspaper editor was thinking not only of the prison guards, who shot to kill when they might have been able to stop Tom simply by wounding him. Scout knows that Mr. Underwood is indicting the whole town because it never gave Tom Robinson a chance to clear himself.

Mr. Underwood has been prepared to lose many subscriptions to his paper in reaction to his critical editorial. The people of Maycomb ignore the rebuke, however, telling themselves that Mr. Underwood was just trying to write something flowery enough to get reprinted in the big city paper.


Here, again, the author seems to be telling you that the real sin of the white people of Maycomb is not cruelty but complacency. It would almost be better if the townsfolk responded to the editorial with anger. At least when people are angry, they are likely to think and argue and take sides. They may end up questioning their own ideas of right and wrong. But the whites in Maycomb manage to avoid the issue by finding some way to dismiss or belittle anyone who disagrees with them.

Perhaps you have encountered this kind of complacency in your own life. How do you deal with people who refuse to take you seriously, or even to listen to your side of the situation? Scout recognizes that Tom Robinson's escape was, in part, a gesture of protest against this indifference. But even though Tom paid with his life, the message of his protest was ignored.  


ECC [To Kill a Mockingbird Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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