Through the study this term of the central text, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and related texts, films Rabbit Proof Fence by Phillip Noyce and In the Name of the Father by Jim Sheridan, my understanding of the concept of justice, or what constitutes justice, has altered considerably. We all think we know what justice is, or what it should be. In Australian colloquial terms, it is the principle of a “fair go” for everyone. In a perfect world, everyone is treated fairly. No-one is subjected to discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sex or disability. But the reality is that the world we inhabit is far from perfect, human beings are by their very natures incapable of perfection, which is why we have strict laws governing political, social and criminal justice. These laws are to protect us from others who wish to see us disadvantaged and to ensure that justice is done. What I have learnt from the study of this concept however, is that justice (or the carrying out of justice) is entirely relative to time and place; that is, an individual’s perception of this concept will largely be determined by the political and social context in which s/he lives.
To Kill a Mockingbird, although fiction, is very much a reflection of the attitudes and values (the social and political context) of southern American life in the 1930’s. Harper Lee writes from her own experiences growing up in a southern American town very similar to the novel’s Maycomb. Embedded deeply within To Kill a Mockingbird are aspects of the political, social and criminal injustices inherent in the American South which she despised. Deeply troubled by the failure of the human race to live together in peace and friendship, Lee wanted to analyse the forces dividing man from man. A key phrase summing up her concern is provided by Mr Dolphus Raymond who, speaking to Dill and Scout outside the court room where Tom Robinson is being tried for rape, speaks of, “the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.” He tells the children to, “Cry about the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too.” (p. 205) This is poignant coming from a white man who is himself a pariah in Maycomb.
Tom Robinson was very much a victim of this society which considered the black man inferior, intellectually, socially and morally. There existed only one other class of people who were lower in this strictly socially stratified society – the black woman. At Tom Robinson’s trial, Atticus Finch tries to appeal to an already biased jury’s sense of justice and decency.
The witnesses for the state, with the exception of the sheriff of Macomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption – the evil assumption – that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their calibre. (p. 208)
Atticus’ appeal however, falls on deaf ears; the “kangaroo court”, so typical of the social and political context in which it existed, had already decided on its verdict – Tom Robinson was guilty of the rape of Mayella Ewell not because he had committed the crime, the evidence was to the contrary, but because he was black and she, white. In addition, the fact that he, a black man, admitted feeling sorry for a white woman was outrageous to Maycomb society. That Mayella had, “broken a rigid and time-honoured code of (Southern American) society,” (p. 208) was the determining factor in her false accusations. She must rid herself of Tom, whatever the cost, in order to appease her own guilt. The fact that the court knew that Tom Robinson was innocent and that Bob Ewell had assaulted his...