Saturday, May 7, 2016

#RW Update 1 and Thoughts on Harper Lee's Courthouse

I am reading…
The Host by Stephenie Meyer
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
La Casa de los Espíritus by Isabel Allende

via Goodreads
KABOOM—behold, the first #ReadWomen update of the summer! As it has only been a couple of days I haven’t finished any books yet. Instead, I’ll talk about a book I love from my pre-summer exploits: To Kill a Mockingbird.

I assumed that because I was younger when I first read it, my return to To Kill a Mockingbird would be somewhat disappointing. I was wrong. Atticus remains my main man, and though there’s humor, its perspective of racial injustice is poignant and intense.

The storyline follows young Scout Finch as she witnesses her father’s defense of a black man during a rape trial in a court where the white men always win. They don’t have a prayer, but Scout’s father Atticus does his darndest to defend Tom Robinson anyway. The courthouse scene where Atticus defends Robinson from the racist allegations made me profoundly uncomfortable—but not because of the racism. Rather, it is because it is Atticus himself who promotes injustice there. He builds his case by victim-blaming Mayella Ewell and pressing her with the responsibility of not being raped.

A quick disclaimer: Tom Robinson’s story is still the point. It is the point that the Ewells made false allegations against him simply because he was African American. It is the point that Robinson was made to take the fall for a white man. And it is the point that he was dead meat before he stepped foot in that courthouse. It’s the point that it was wrong, wrong, wrong.

But there was more injustice than that.

Read a few lines from To Kill a Mockingbird, directed towards Mayella during the trial. Gilmer is the lawyer who is defending her, and Atticus is the lawyer defending Tom Robinson.

“Did you scream? […] Did you scream and fight back?” –Gilmer, page 205

“You say you fought him off as hard as you could? Fought him off tooth and nail?” –Gilmer, page 206

“Is this the man who raped you?”
“It most certainly is.”
“How?” –Atticus and Mayella, page 211
[this dialogue refers to the fact that Tom Robinson is disabled due to an accident as a child; he does not have the use of his left arm. Atticus is suggesting that an able person could not be raped by a disabled person and thus Mayella must have given her consent if this scene happened (which he doesn’t think it did).]

“You’re becoming suddenly clear on this point. A while ago you couldn’t remember too well, could you?” –Atticus, page 212

“You’re a strong girl, what were you doing all the time, just standing there?” –Atticus, page 212

“All right, why didn’t you run?”
“I tried to…”
“Tried to? What kept you from it?” –Atticus, page 212

These are all examples of victim-blaming Mayella because they all put the responsibility of not being raped upon Mayella—this includes quotes from the lawyer taking her side of the case! These arguments challenge her resistance, the validity of her being overpowered, her truthfulness, and her attempts to escape.

In the end, they’re asking, “Can you prove that you acted like you didn’t want to be raped?”

Because, of course, had Mayella failed to resist—worse, if she had initiated the contact herself—then she would have been “asking for it.” In a sense, though everyone takes Mayella’s side, she has to prove that she earned the right to be defended in the court of law. (This is particularly sad because we now know that freezing is a natural response to rape.)

Personally, I don’t think Tom Robinson raped Mayella. I think he was a victim of a corrupt justice system that saw the color of his skin before the merit of his behavior, and that is terrible. But still—WHAT IF?

What if Mayella was raped? What if we’re asked to believe she made up the story because she was racist and abused by her father? What if that belief is wrong? Mayella wins her case in the story, yes, but she doesn’t win in the long run. What if Mayella’s rapist had been a white man? Could she have won? What’s more, what if Mayella wasn’t a young white girl? What if Mayella were black, too? No matter who her rapist was, would the crime even be brought to court? Would anybody think she “deserved” defense when her story didn’t merit defending?

Mayella ends up being a victim of this trial, too.

via Tumblr
And so many people remain victims today, too. Because those aren’t just “what-if’s.” Rape happened then and it happens now. People of all kinds are given the blame and responsibility for being raped. We still have trouble acknowledging that no means no regardless of the circumstances. We still have trouble defending the stories of people we don’t think ought to be defended. Prejudices towards race and gender make it possible for some people to ignore rape as the problem it is. But it is a problem; it isn’t what-if.

Again, I think this story means a lot when looking at Tom Robinson’s story. He suffered a lot because white people held their prejudice over justice. But we would be remiss as readers if we stopped there. There was injustice on both sides of the table in To Kill a Mockingbird.

It’s just that that wasn’t the one that Atticus was fighting against.

Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird?


  1. I read To Kill a Mockingbird years ago and never really thought about the points you bring up--now I need to go reread it!

    1. I'm glad I made you think! I think it might have been brought up in my class, but yeah... another read through can be very revealing!

  2. I loved City Of The Beasts - I remember my dad reading it to me when I was about 8. So I'm curious as to how you like House Of Spirits (if that is the title-I'm guessing based on my Isabel Allende knowledge and the spainish word spiritos, since I do not speak spainish). Anyway, that is relatively irrelevant (how were all your exams btw? I only have one AP left then I'm free-yayayay!)to this important discussion. I was in 9th grade when I first read TKAM, and in 10th grade when I reread it (I was so young! *sniffs nostalgically* actually not really) and I never thought about Mayella Ewell and how she was blamed as a victim, which you are totally right about. And that is ugly. I wonder whether this was an intentional creation of moral ambiguity on Harper Lee's part, or if it was entirely unintentional? I think this mainly just highlights how prevalent sexism still is, and how just because a book promotes one type of equality, it isn't promoting another. This is very thoughtful as usual :)

    1. I will definitely talk about it when I finish it! I think the English title is "The House of the Spirits" since that is what it is listed as on Wikipedia, though "House of Spirits" sounds more Englishy as we would know it.

      Exams were fine, thanks for asking!

      I would have to wonder. Since Harper Lee crafts such impressive female characters (Scout, Alexandra, Calpurnia, the neighbors, etc.) I'd like to think she had sympathy for Mayella's situation. At the same time, since this was published in the 1960s, I don't think they had the same ideas of consent and rape culture that we have now. It may very well just be historically accurate.

      Whether or not Lee intended it, though, it is still worth our consideration as a morally gray area!

      Thanks for reading, Shar!

  3. Wow, great post! I actually haven't read To Kill A Mockingbird (I'm kinda bad at classics), but I'm really interested now. I go to the library today, so I'm gonna see if I can find it.


    1. I don't think of it as a classic (what does 'classic' mean, anyway?) but still, I getcha. I think it's worth the read, though, so I hope you find and enjoy it!


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