When Rachel Brown reads Hornbeck’s column about Cates, she is stunned to hear her outcast friend described as a hero. Public outcry, which Rachel’s father stirs up, casts Cates as a villain. The town’s conservative politics allows neither for debate nor doubt. Throughout the play, Cates and Drummond encourage Rachel to keep her mind open, while Brown and Brady coax her to abide by their views as they vilify her friend. At the end of the play, Rachel overcomes her fear and recognizes the possibilities of Cates’s and Drummond’s free thought. She takes her newfound self-reliance with her to the train station, to the city.
In Inherit the Wind, Cates challenges the law and, with it, the norms of Hillsboro society. Facing disfavor from the townspeople, he nonetheless decides to persevere in his cause. Describing his feelings of isolation, Cates explains to Drummond, “People look at me as if I was a murderer. Worse than a murderer!” Drummond, who has learned from his years as a criminal-defense attorney, along with his own struggles as an agnostic and an advocate for unpopular causes, empathizes with Cates. As Drummond says, “It’s the loneliest feeling in the world—to find yourself standing up when everybody else is sitting down.”
Both Cates and Drummond experience a struggle against mainstream society. The older and more experienced Drummond comforts Cates with his knowledge that individuals make progress for all of society when they courageously pursue the truth regardless of others’ opinions. At the end of the play, when the court announces the verdict, Drummond says to Cates, “You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you? Tomorrow it’ll be something else—and another fella will have to stand up. And you’ve helped give him the guts to do it!” As Drummond implies, individuals throughout history have challenged societal norms by forcing society to rethink its assumptions. Historical movements appropriate the energy of these individuals to revolutionize society.
Although Brady and Reverend Brown are charismatic public figures, they fail to present themselves as individuals. Rather, they hide behind the Bible and hold themselves up as symbols of society itself. Their efforts to staunch free thought and repress new ideas are anti-individualistic. They maintain order in Hillsboro by scaring people out of having their own opinions and ideas. As the storeowner admits, such individual attitudes are “bad for business.” Ultimately, however, Brady’s and Brown’s fear tactics come up short. Although they technically win the case against Cates, the defense clearly achieves its goal—opening the minds of Hillsboro’s townspeople.