Importance of the Trial in To Kill a Mockingbird
The trial of Tom Robinson is central to our understanding of racial and social prejudice in Maycomb. Harper Lee uses Tom Robinson's 'crime' to bring tensions in the town to a head and the author uses the trial as a way of making the ideas behind such tensions explicit for the reader.
The two people involved in the so-called crime, Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell, are at the very bottom of Maycomb society. Tom is black and Mayella one of the poorest of the poor whites. However, neither of them fits into the stereotypes held by the people of Maycomb. Tom is honest, hardworking and dependable, as Mr Link Deas's shouted testimony and his demeanour in court demonstrate. Mayella is a member of the poorest and most shiftless families in the town yet she looks after her brothers and sisters, keeps herself clean and tends to her geraniums in the most difficult of circumstances. It is clear that before the alleged rape a sort of friendship had grown up between Tom and Mayella.
Tom Robinson was probably the only person who was decent to (Mayella).
Unfortunately the ideas about race and society held at the time meant that contact between them could never be anything other than distant and respectful (quite apart from the fact that Tom was married anyway). But Mayella's yearning for some form of close human contact emerges during the trial. She had saved for almost a year to have enough nickels to give her brothers and sisters a treat in order to have her house empty when she invited Tom inside. When she made her advance to Tom he was caught by his inability to hit a white woman and the extreme taboo that Maycomb placed on any form of sexual contact. He had no choice but to run from Mayella when he got the chance. Unfortunately for Tom the chance came with the arrival of Bob Ewell at the window.
The trial itself provides Harper Lee with the opportunity to examine the attitudes of people like the Ewells and the presumably more respectable members of the jury. Bob Ewell emerges as a drunken, bullying, child-abuser with little respect for the law and even less for truth and justice. But however low in the social order he is, Bob Ewell can still look down on black people. At the beginning of his testimony he complains about a 'nest' of them near him bringing down the property values of his shack by the town dump. Tom's account of Mayella's actions suggests that he may have indulged in some form of incest with his daughter, but the taboo against relationships between white women and black men is so strong that even Bob Ewell is shocked and horrified by it. He responds first by savagely beating his daughter and then by accusing Tom Robinson of rape.
Whatever respect or sympathy the reader might have had for Bob Ewell is dispelled by his behaviour in the courtroom and the evidence that Atticus produces that he was the...