Atticus is a wise man, committed to justice and equality, and his parenting style is based on fostering these virtues in his children—he even encourages Jem and Scout to call him “Atticus” so that they can interact on terms as equal as possible. Throughout the novel, Atticus works to develop Scout’s and Jem’s respective consciences, through both teaching, as when he tells Scout to put herself in a person’s shoes before she judges them, and example, as when he takes Tom Robinson’s case, living up to his own moral standards despite the harsh consequences he knows he will face. Atticus is a kind and loving father, reading to his children and offering them comfort when they need it, but he is also capable of teaching them harsh lessons, as when he allows Jem to come with him to tell Helen Robinson about Tom’s death. At the end of the novel, when Atticus believes that Jem killed Bob Ewell, he tries to talk Heck Tate, the sheriff, out of calling the death an accident—Atticus’s standards are firm, and he does not want his son to have unfair protection from the law.
To Kill a Mockingbird explores the questions of innocence and harsh experience, good and evil, from several different angles. Tom Robinson’s trial explores these ideas by examining the evil of racial prejudice, its ability to poison an otherwise admirable Southern town and destroy an innocent man, and its effect on young Jem and Scout. Because the point of a trial is to discover guilt or innocence, Tom’s trial serves as a useful mechanism for Lee to lay out the argument against racial prejudice in a dramatic framework suited to the larger themes of the novel. Additionally, because a trial is essentially about the presentation of facts, it serves as a laboratory in which the extent of the town’s prejudice can be objectively measured. Atticus presents a solid case that leaves virtually no room for doubt: Tom Robinson is innocent, and if he is found guilty, then it is only because of the jury’s racism. When Tom is found guilty, the outcome of the trial presents a crisis of confidence, particularly for Jem: if the law fails, then how can one have faith in justice, and if the people of Maycomb fail, then how can one have faith in the goodness of humanity? Although these questions are explored to some degree before the trial, they dominate the novel after the trial. From a structural point of view, the trial serves to bring the narrative’s main issues into focus.
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