A black man, Tom Robinson, is wrongly charged with raping a white girl in a southern racist state in 1930s America. The town is convinced of his guilt purely because of the colour of his skin. A (white) lawyer, Atticus Finch, and a model of integrity, defends him whilst confronting injustice and prejudice. He exposes the girl at the trial as a liar, put up to perjure herself by her father. The all-male all-white racist jury, nevertheless, convict Tom of rape. The members of the black community observing the trial (corralled into the “coloured-only” seats on a balcony) stand as Atticus wearily leaves court to show their respect and gratitude. Tom is shot before his appeal is heard.
This is the usual reading of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960). It was made into a famous film starring Gregory Peck (1962) and inspired thousands of would-be lawyers to the Bar. It won a Pulitzer Prize and, published six years after the end of segregation in schools (1954) and five years after the Montgomery bus boycott began (1955), took its part in the sixties civil rights movement.
But having just re-read the novel, I want to ask the question: what is it that makes us believe Tom Robinson is innocent of rape?
The novel is told from the point of view of Atticus’ daughter, Jean Louis Finch (Scout), as an adult remembering back to the events she witnessed as a six year old. The prose style is thus both adult and child-like. Scout witnesses only part of the trial after she is smuggled onto the balcony of the court room. There is no recreation of the actual rape scene in the text of the novel. We only learn the details of the rape therefore from the perspective of a six year old listening to part of the testimony of witnesses at the trial. Scout is convinced of Tom’s innocence but why are we as readers?
The defence turns on one significant fact. Mayella Ewell, the complainant, had bruises to the right side of her face. Her evidence to the court is that Tom entered the Ewell smallholding, assaulted her causing this injury and then raped her before her father, interrupting Tom, chased him from the scene. Given the injuries were to Mayella’s right side her assailant, Atticus tells the jury, must have been left handed. Atticus proves that the father, Bob Ewell, is left-handed and reveals that Tom’s left arm is withered (from a cotton-gin accident as a boy). Atticus puts to both Mayella and Bob Ewell that Bob carried out the assault and that there was no rape at all (which both deny). The bruising point is a very flimsy argument. If her assailant (whoever he was) had come from behind or the side, then either hand would have been sufficient to inflict a right sided injury. This point alone is insufficient to undermine Mayella’s testimony.
In a town pullulating with prejudice Atticus is a moral beacon. His decision to defend Tom comes at personal cost and his children are taunted for Atticus’s actions, he is referred to as a “nigger-lover”. His virtues (as a parent, a lawyer, a citizen) are so strongly presented, it may be that we as readers (at some level) do not want to believe that he would defend a guilty man. On the night before the trial Tom is in the county jail when a mob come to lynch him. Atticus has been standing all night sentinel outside the jail to protect his client. The mob are shamed into dispersing. The word ‘prejudice’ comes from pre justice: justice before the fact. Executing a defendant on the night before his trial is the very definition of pre justice. With these moral indicators (and others) how could Atticus be defending a guilty man?
It is, of course, a fatuous mistake to think that a morally good lawyer could only represent innocent defendants. If we discount it as an adequate reason for Tom’s innocence in the novel, and reject the right-sided injuries point as insufficient to be definitive, what else is there within the text upon which to form a judgement? Atticus’ cross examination of Mayella, whilst courteous, is a model of myth-pedalling about victims of rape. Atticus adduces evidence from her that presents her as sexually promiscuous. He alludes to her having an incestuous sexual relationship with her father (based on no evidence at all). Mayella is thus painted as less trustworthy as a witness because she is sexually promiscuous. Further she is asked why (if she was raped) she did not fight Tom off, or shout for help or run away. Research (and experience) shows that many women ‘freeze’ during a sexual assault. The fact that Mayella neither fought, nor screamed, nor ran away is no indication of the truth of her testimony either way. This double stereotypical strategy permits us to mistrust her as a witness. In this way Atticus rather than challenging stereotypes, reinforces them. Is our readiness to believe in Tom’s innocence therefore based on unexamined prejudices we hold?
The standard reading of To Kill A Mockingbird with its mixture of child/adult friendly prose and easy to swallow morality is a favourite of teachers and exam boards. The battle between good and evil is spelt out for us, and it is clear that the jury in the novel did convict Tom purely because of Jim Crow-soaked racism. Juries in rape trials, in my experience as a criminal barrister both prosecuting and defending, regularly (wrongly) acquit. To decide a case on myths formed prior to entering a courtroom rather than on the evidence heard within it, is pre justice. There is a danger that we as readers acquit Tom of rape because of our own unchallenged stereotypes about what we expect of victims of sexual assault. Who will write the novel that will confront the prejudices current in our society?