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The Law and the Code in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird Robert O. Stephens During his speech to the jury at the climactic trial of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch presents a fundamental distinction between the two forces in conflict during the rape trial—the law and the code. Tom Robinson, he argues, has broken no law, but his accuser Mayella Ewell has violated the code by making advances to a black man: "She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with. ... No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterward."1 The point Atticus argues is that Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman, must be judged by terms of the law, but he knows because of his life in Maycomb society that the jury will judge the defendant according to the code of that community. If the immediate issue for Atticus is legal evidence of rape versus pictures in the minds of jurors, in Bob Ewell's language , "of that black nigger yonder ruttin' on my Mayella," his larger issue is the difference between the law that people are presumed to live by and the code they actually follow. Atticus Finch's problem is enmeshed in a tangle of values. On the surface the story is about growing up in a small southern town. Told in first person by Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, who is six when the story begins, the novel describes pivotal changes in her life as she goes through her first two years and two months of school—her introduction to the public life of Maycomb, Alabama, in the mid- 1930s—and contrasts her new discoveries with what she has learned from her widowed father Atticus. Advised by her older brother Jem, their summer friend Dill, her neighbor Miss Maude Atkinson, and by their black housekeeper Calpurnia, Scout spends the first half of her story learning the unwritten code of Maycomb life and creating legends of gothic villainy about their neighbor Boo Radley, a recluse rumored to have done unspeakable night things. But the ominous undertone during this idyll of innocence is the growing outrage in town and county that Atticus will defend Tom Robinson. Mayella Ewell, though scorned as "trash," is still a white woman. When the trial takes place, Scout, Jem, and Dill watch from the courtroom balcony filled with blacks as Atticus demon- 216Southern Cultures Scenes from the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive. Reprinted with permission from Universal Pictures Company, Inc. strates Tom's innocence, discredits Bob Ewell's lurid testimony, and reveals Mayella's violation of the community code in making sexual advances to Tom. Despite the evidence the jury convicts Tom and condemns him to death. As Atticus acknowledges , the case was lost one hundred years before it began. In the aftermath of the trial, Bob Ewell, now humiliated and sent back to live beside the town dump, stalks Atticus and his children. The stalk climaxes on a Halloween night when Ewell attacks Jem and Scout and is killed by Boo Radley, now revealed as gentle and shy rescuer. Sheriff Heck Tate conducts his own hearing on Ewell's cause of death. Throughout these events Scout observes the clash between law and code in Maycomb. Because that distinction has fundamental consequences in To Kill a Mockingbird and is so compellingly presented, the novel has become part of the lore of school and general readers since its publication in 1960. Critical recognition of the novel has been limited largely to its possibilities as a teaching device; the preponderance of comment has appeared in pedagogical journals and in surveys of black characters.2 But the implications of differences between the law and the code, particularly in racial matters, can be seen in the historical resonance of the Stephens: The Law and the Code217 To Kill a Mockingbird. Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive. Reprinted with permission...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 215-227
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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