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Themes of 12 Angry Men

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

''12 Angry Men'' by Reginald Rose is a play with universal appeal for all readers, as we are drawn into it without ever knowing a name or a place. We are asked to consider issues of prejudice, justice, family, and doubt.

Background

To understand 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose, consider that throughout this story, the players are never mentioned by name. There is Juror 3 or 6 or 8, or the downstairs neighbor, but we are never allowed to form attachments to them on a personal basis. We are expected to be more universally attached. We don't know whether it takes place in Chicago or Cleveland. Rose does this intentionally so the appeal will be vast; we can all relate because it could be anyone, anywhere.

The jury must decide on the guilt or innocence of the defendant, who is accused of murdering his father, but in the beginning, the vote is 11-1 for guilty. The one holdout, Juror 8, sets out to demonstrate to the others that there is reasonable doubt.

12 Angry Men
12 Angry Men

Themes to Consider

Rose artfully introduces themes of race, justice, family, and doubt into his story line, and we are held at full attention by the issues argued. These are heady topics, and it is likely that many juries around the country have similar discussions on a daily basis.

Prejudice

While it is never clear what the race of the defendant is, what is clear are the prejudices of the jury members. Juror 10 refers to the defendant and his community as ''them,'' which allows us to lump them all together under a certain category. ''You're not going to tell us that we're supposed to believe him, knowing what he is. I've lived among 'em all my life. You can't believe a word they say. You know that.''

When we see or hear those words, we can feel the prejudice dripping off of him. Juror Five takes issue with his disparaging remarks. ''I used to play in a backyard that was filled with garbage. Maybe it still smells on me.''

The foreman tries to calm them down, but it is clear he doesn't really understand because he was not affected personally by the comment.

We feel Juror 3's disdain for young people, maybe because he is estranged from his son, who he has not seen in two years. He is a bully who is used to getting his way.

Juror 8 feels great sympathy for the boy because he comes from an impoverished background. He believes strongly that it is important to talk about the case before sentencing someone to death.

Juror 7 is confident that the defendant is guilty because he has had a number of previous arrests.

Juror 11 pipes up and says, ''Where're you going? Human life don't mean as much to them as it does to us!''

The examples of prejudice are prevalent throughout the deliberations. We see it take on many forms. Rose cleverly offers a multitude of examples of prejudice that are wide and varied, giving us a lot to think about. We see clearly that there are many prejudices that are inherent in people, and these prejudices are difficult to overcome.

Justice

From the beginning of the play, we learn that the jurors on the case have been charged with determining the guilt or innocence of a young man who has been charged with the murder of his father. This is a death case, which only adds to the difficulty.

It gets even more complicated because the jurors are split on just what defines justice. On one side are the jurors who believe that the defendant is in essence a victim of society, someone who comes from a poor background. These jurors are also incensed by what they see as an incompetent defense. They don't trust the state-appointed attorney, and believe that the jury is moving too quickly to convict. We see the struggle when they say:

Juror 7: ''We can be here all night.''

Juror 9: ''It's only one night. A man may die.''

The other side of the jury believes that the defendant is clearly guilty. They are looking for retribution, and they want to make sure that the defendant is found guilty and executed. They are convinced that he has done exactly what the state has accused him of doing.

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