Tom Robinson's Fate (To Kill a Mockingbird spoilers)

So, I’ve just re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, and there’s something about it that’s troubling me. Specifically, the eventual fate of Tom Robinson (the defendant), and everyone’s (in particular, Atticus’) reaction to it.

I think that’s enough preliminary to get me out of the mouseover. In the book, Robinson is found guilty in the first trial, and is sent to the state prison. Atticus, of course, continues working on the appeal, but Robinson attempts to escape, and is shot in the process.

Or at least, that’s the official story. And Atticus, for whatever reason, appears to accept it (he says that he reckons that Robinson was tired of taking the white man’s chances). But come on: Throughout history, whenever anyone has had a prisoner whom they would really prefer to have out of the picture, the convenient resolution has always been “He was killed while attempting escape”. And are we really meant to believe that the prison has a fence that a one-armed man could manage to almost scale before being shot?

So, did Robinson really attempt to escape, or is that just the story the prison wardens are telling with a wink and a nod?

I don’t see any indication that Atticus or Scout interpreted the official story that way, nor do I think Harper Lee intended for us to interpret it that way.

Well, Scout was too young to be cynical enough to not take it at face value. But you’re right, Atticus didn’t interpret the story that way, and that’s my point: He should have, or should have at least considered it. This is the man who knew there’d be a lynch mob at the jail, and calmly went out to stand in their way. He should have realized that there’d be the same sort of people at the state level, thinking (or not thinking) in the same way.

It’s an interesting point. However, if it occurred to Harper Lee at all, she gave no indication that it occurred to Atticus. She would have had him make at least a sub rosa comment about it. Also, I think it would weaken the narrative, which already perfectly made its tragic point, and didn’t need to twist the knife any more than it did. It might help the readers distance themselves from the narrative by portraying the white Southerners as monsters. It’s infinitely more scary to see evil done by misguided humans, and know that capacity is in all of us. Also, it might indicate a certain fear that the appeal would succeed, and so weaken the whole point of racial injustice.

It may have occurred to Atticus that Tom could’ve run to the fence knowing that he’d never get over it alive, and that fate would still be preferable to “white men’s chances”.

It’s unknowable to the reader whether Atticus had any insight into Tom’s intentions that would lead him to suspect so.

I took it at face value that he either tried to escape or committed suicide by guard. His useless hand would hinder the escape, but he probably didn’t much care if he lived or died by then.

I don’t think so. It might reinforce the notion that the system and culture as a whole was monstrous, but one of the main themes of the book is that there are plenty of good folk who don’t contribute to that culture (Atticus himself, Miss Maudie, the town “drunk”), and even many of those who do are still basically good folk on their own (the Cunninghams, the newspaper editor, Mrs. DuBois).

Atticus, at least, thought that there was a good chance that the appeal would succeed, and we have no reason to doubt him (note that he was honest in his assessment of the chances for the first trial). And if it was likely enough for Atticus to hope for, then it was also likely enough for others to fear.

I think this is a valid interpretation. There are any number of examples of prisoners trying for the wall or making a run in full view of guards who they must know would likely shoot them down. I don’t recall the phrase “taking the white man’s chances” but it could be that he knew what he did was taking away the element of chance. In a sense, he regained control of his destiny.

I seem to recall (it has been a while), that Atticus described witnesses who said that, if Robinson had two functional arms, he might have made it over and out. This would imply that the event took place in view of people, not off in some obscure location witnessed only by the shooters.

I would assume that the witnesses who said that would be the guards themselves. Who else would be present, besides the guards and other inmates?