Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird remains to be a classic of American literature. Although much of the novel’s events inspire feelings of warmth and humor in a wide and diverse audience, more solemn issues are also encountered, such as racial inequality and rape. The story centers on Scout, the narrator and protagonist, and Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, who is an attorney hired to defend Tom Robinson. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch attempts to acquit Tom Robinson; however, Atticus fails to win Robinson’s freedom for several reasons, but primarily due to racial inequality.
In the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, a predominately white community accuses a young black man, Tom Robinson, of raping a young white woman. Being black in an overwhelmingly white community sets the stage for an unjust yet common theme of racism during the Great Depression. Atticus Finch, father of Jem and Scout Finch, is appointed by Judge Taylor to defend Tom Robinson, who is unfairly accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Tom is deemed by the community as a dead man, but Atticus taking on the case immediately sparks an intense controversy in the small, usually peaceful town. Atticus’ decision to proceed as Tom’s attorney not only affects his usually stable and quiet life, but also his children’s: Scout and Jem.
In fact, Scout and Jem are forced to endure much taunting and ridicule by other children and are accused of being “nigger-lover[s]” (Lee 87). Both Scout and Jem express their anger and rejection of these harsh accusations, but Atticus is forced to deal with the real brunt of the situation. Atticus, however, cannot convince the community otherwise of their inaccurate assumption: “that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women,” (Lee 217). Unfortunately, the simple fact that Tom is black is reason enough to condemn him for a crime that he did not even commit.
Additionally, the case involves a young, poor, and more importantly, white woman who claims that she has been raped. This further condemns Atticus’ case for Tom Robinson, as the community will undoubtedly support the poor, white woman who needs help. Had Tom been white, perhaps the outcome would have been different. Atticus, being a very seasoned, wise, and experienced lawyer, has a plethora of knowledge available to him to support his case. However, as stated in the book, “Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed,” (Lee 244).
Although the white people have the power to employ and exploit the blacks in the community, such as Tom, they stipulate that under no circumstances should blacks have anything else to do with the whites, such as having a more personal relationship. The sad irony in this is that by denying blacks any sort of personal relationship, they are denying them the right to have humanly feelings, thus categorizing them as lesser human beings, which creates the harsh gap in social classes between the whites and the blacks. Despite the community’s false allegations against Tom and cruel denunciations against Atticus and his family, Atticus civilly asserts, “they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions […] but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,” (Lee 114). Despite having premonitions of the final outcome of the case, Atticus proceeds in the defense of Tom, knowing that it is the right thing to do.
Lastly, Atticus’ case for Tom Robinson faces failure due to the written and unwritten cultural norms and laws in the southern town. For example, Dolphus Raymond is outcast for being with a black woman and having children with her. Mayella is beaten by her father, simply for kissing Tom. Whether the punishment suits the crime, whether the crime is even a crime, stringent social norms are in place that foster more evil outcomes than good. As Atticus states in regards to Tom’s conviction, “I don’t know [how they could convict Tom Robinson], but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it-seems that only children weep,” (Lee 225). Atticus further expounds upon his righteous anger when he says: “you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life [. . .] whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, [. . .] that white man is trash,” (Lee 233). Although the community believes that they are in the right for condemning innocent Tom Robinson, Atticus and his children learn that no matter what they could have done, Tom would have died at the hands of lesser humans who, ironically enough, claimed and acted to be more humanly and thus more entitled than a black person, such as Tom.
In summary, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus unsuccessfully attempts to free the accused Tom Robinson; however, Atticus’ failure to do so is due to a number of other external factors that are far beyond his own control. Although much of the novel’s events arouse feelings of affection and humor in a wide and varied audience, other darker themes are encountered, such as racial inequality, an unjust system of social classes, and rape. As a result, Atticus and his family realize that Tom Robinson’s story and case is not an isolated incident, nor is he just a victim in a small community. Sadly, Tom Robinson’s story illustrates the larger picture in that he is a victim of society’s unjust assumptions, social inequality, and racism.