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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee




Everyone except Jem, who has been given medicine to make him sleep, retires to the porch to discuss the night's happenings.

Atticus is sure that Jem must have stabbed Bob Ewell in self-defense. But Sheriff Tate disagrees. He tells Atticus that he intends to write in his report on the incident that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife.

Atticus protests at first. He is sure that the sheriff is trying to cover up for Jem. Then it slowly dawns on Atticus that it isn't Jem the sheriff wants to protect. Boo Radley, not Jem, stabbed Bob Ewell.

Why does the sheriff want to cover up Boo Radley's part in the fight?

There can be no doubt that the stabbing of Bob Ewell was justifiable homicide, necessary to save the lives of Jem and Scout. Even if Boo's case ever came before a court, he would certainly be found innocent. The court system might not work for a black man like Tom Robinson, but Boo has nothing to fear. It is not the law that the sheriff wants to protect Boo from, but the publicity. He wants to spare Boo the need to explain himself to the police and to others, and even the attention he would surely get from neighbors who would consider him a hero for saving the children's lives. As the sheriff notes, all the ladies in the neighborhood would no doubt be showing up at the Radley's door bringing cakes and pies- a friendly gesture that would be torture for a shy, reclusive man like Boo.


Most readers agree that Sheriff Tate is doing the right thing. He is willing to bend the rules by writing a false report, but only in the name of compassion. Justice is served, perhaps not in the letter of the law, but in its spirit. By putting himself inside Boo's skin- just as Atticus advised the children to do earlier in the story- Sheriff Tate has seen that it would be much kinder to keep quiet about Boo's action.

A few readers, however, may have qualms about this ending to the novel. Isn't this bending of the law in accordance with one's feeling the same reasoning that allowed the jurors to find Tom Robinson guilty even though they must have known he was innocent? Remember, it's possible that some of the jurors did not actively want to harm Tom. Perhaps they only wanted to spare Mayella Ewell the shame of a verdict that would have shown they didn't believe her. Perhaps we would be better off in the long run if the law were applied equally to everyone. Once people start making exceptions, doesn't this open the door to a situation where there is one law for one's friends and "people like us" and another for everybody else?

There is no right answer to these questions. Scout and Atticus approve of Sheriff Tate's decision, and their view clearly represents the opinion of the author. However, you will have to decide for yourself whether you agree.  


ECC [To Kill a Mockingbird Contents] []

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