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That the trial scene creates such an atmosphere of suspense is testimony to the author’s skill, because there is no real suspense; even Atticus knows that the verdict is a foregone conclusion. No matter what evidence is presented at the trial, the racist jury would never, under any circumstances, acquit a black man accused of raping a white woman. The reader knows that Tom Robinson will be found guilty, so Lee locates the tension and suspense elsewhere—in Atticus’s slow but steady dismantling of the prosecution’s case. Jem, still clinging to his youthful illusions about life working according to concepts of fairness, doesn’t understand that his father’s brilliant efforts will be in vain. He believes that the irrefutable implications of the evidence will clinch the case for Atticus. When Jem says, “We’ve got him,” after Bob Ewell is shown to be left-handed, the reader knows better. Atticus, like Mrs. Dubose in her battle with morphine, is “licked” before he begins.
Bob Ewell’s real name is Robert E. Lee Ewell, a moniker that links him with the South’s past and makes him absurd by comparison with his namesake, General Robert E. Lee, who fought valiantly for the Confederacy in the Civil War despite his opposition to slavery. If Robert E. Lee represents the idealized South, then Bob Ewell epitomizes its darker and less respectable side, dominated by thoughtless prejudice, squalor, and meanness. Atticus’s admonition to Scout that she should increase her tolerance by stepping inside other people’s shoes does not apply to Bob Ewell. When Atticus tries to do so later, he only underestimates the depth of this little man’s wickedness. The irony, of course, is that Bob Ewell is completely unimportant; he is an arrogant, lazy, abusive fool, laughed at by his fellow townsfolk. Yet in the racist world of Maycomb, sadly, even he has the power to destroy an innocent man—perhaps the novel’s most tragic example of the threat posed to innocence by evil.