Twelve Angry Men

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Switch knife Symbol Analysis

Switch knife Symbol Icon
The murder weapon which features at the heart of the legal case takes on symbolic meaning when Eight brings a matching weapon into the jury room to prove his point about reasonable doubt. When Eight sticks a matching knife in the wall, the murder weapon represents the certainty of the jurors that is quickly draining away. Initially, eleven out of twelve jurors felt convinced of the accused’s guilt. However, various aspects of the case, a few of these involving the switch knife, are called into question. Not only is the switch knife not as unique as the jurors assumed it to be, the stab wound, created by a man unfamiliar with handling a switch knife, raises questions. The knife, as a switchblade, is also linked to the poor community and impoverished circumstances in which the accused grew up. Five, who grew up in a similar environment, is able to identify the proper use of a switchblade, which links usage of these knives to the difficult circumstances of impoverished neighborhoods. The knife introduces doubt as well as sympathy for the accused. The switch knife is also used symbolically at the very end of the play during the final confrontation between Eight and Three. In the last moments of the play, Three seems to consider killing Eight before handing the knife to him, handle first. This act symbolizes a transfer of power, an active decision on Three’s part to relinquish his aggression and stubbornness. After handing off the knife, Three declares the accused “not guilty.”

Switch knife Quotes in Twelve Angry Men

The Twelve Angry Men quotes below all refer to the symbol of Switch knife. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Reflection of American Society Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the The Dramatic Publishing Company edition of Twelve Angry Men published in 1983.
Act 1 Quotes

Four: Take a look at that knife. It's a very strange knife. I've never seen one like it before in my life and neither had the storekeeper who sold it to him.

[Eight reaches casually into his pocket and withdraws an object. No one notices this. He stands up quietly.]

Four: Aren't you trying to make us accept a pretty incredible coincidence?

Eight: I'm not trying to make anyone accept it. I'm just saying it's possible.

Three: (shouting). And I'm saying it's not possible.

[Eight swiftly flicks open the blade of a switch knife and jams it into the table next to the first one. They are exactly alike. There are several gasps and everyone stares at the knife. There is a long silence.]

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Four (speaker), Eight (speaker)
Related Symbols: Switch knife
Page Number: 23-24
Explanation and Analysis:

Four offers the most rational arguments for the accused kid's guilt. He is reasonable and calm in his delivery and seems more interested in the logical steps of the case than Three or Ten, who have personal and impassioned reasons for blaming and accusing the kid. Therefore, Four's shift from certainty to doubt seems to be the most accurate measure in the play of the success of Eight's arguments for reasonable doubt. 

One of Four's reasons for certainty, as detailed in this passage, is the unusual appearance of the knife used to kill the father. It seems highly unlikely that another identical knife could have been purchased and used in the murder of the father. Four refers to this possibility--that the kid bought an identical knife to the one someone else used to kill his father--as a "pretty incredible coincidence." This helps clarify the term "reasonable doubt." Yes, Four says, there's a possibility that someone else bought the exact same knife, but this is not a "reasonable" possibility. It is, in fact, a highly unlikely possibility. When Eight produces an identical knife and jams it into the table, however, the gesture is strong visual proof that this possibility is more reasonable than it might have seemed. He was able to easily procure an identical knife, which means that any other person might have been able to as well. This causes the jurors to doubt their original certainty that the knife the kid bought is the same one that killed his father. 

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Act 3 Quotes

Five: …Anyone who’s ever used a switch knife would never have stabbed downward. You don’t handle a switch knife that way. You use it underhanded. [Illustrates.]
Eight: Then he couldn’t have made the kind of wound that killed his father.
Five: I suppose it’s conceivable that he could have made the wound, but it’s not likely, not if he had any experience with switch knives, and we know that the kid had a lot of experience with switch knives.

Related Characters: Five (speaker), Eight (speaker), Accused kid, Murdered father
Related Symbols: Switch knife
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Five's experience living in an impoverished community where violence among his neighbors was commonplace turns out to provide key information in the case. Because he has seen switch knives used before, Five is able to demonstrate that they are used underhand rather than overhand. Three tried to demonstrate that the shorter son made a wound on his taller father by stabbing downward with an overhand stroke. Five says that the accused kid could have handled the knife in this way, and could have made the stab wound, but it seems unlikely that he would have done it in this way, given his previous experience with handling such a knife. 

This discrepancy between the way the wound was made and the way an experienced knife handler would have made the wound introduces reasonable doubt of the assumption that the kid stabbed his father. Why would he have done something out of character and incommensurate with his experience? This seems unlikely. The language Five uses highlights the ideas of certainty and doubt. Eight says that the accused kid couldn't have made this wound. Five corrects him, saying, "it's conceivable that he could have made the wound, but it's not likely." Reasonable doubt does not require that the jury be sure the kid didn't make the wound. But it does require that they have good reason to suspect he might not have made it. This is what Five provides with his analysis of how the switch knife is held.

Eight: [to Three] They’re waiting. [Three sees that he is alone. He moves to table and pulls switch knife out of table and walks over to Eight with it. Three is holding knife in approved knife-fighter fashion. Three looks long and hard at juror Eight and weaves a bit from side to side as he holds knife with point of it in direction of Eight’s belly. Eight speaks quietly, firmly.] Not guilty. [Three turns knife around and Eight takes it by handle. Eight closes knife and puts it away.]

Three: Not guilty!

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Eight (speaker), Accused kid
Related Symbols: Switch knife
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

This poignant final confrontation between Three and Eight ends the play with all the jurors unanimously agreeing that the accused kid is "not guilty." This scene moves the struggle from one of logic, prejudice, and words to a struggle that is nonverbal and even potentially violent. Throughout this play, the jurors have used their words to persuade each other. In some cases, this has meant using logic and precision, and in other cases this has meant using personal experience, passion, or emotion. Justice has been sought despite the flaws of prejudice and hatred, despite the biases of the diverse jury. But in this scene it seems that the struggle has shifted from a struggle between "guilty" and "not guilty" to a personal struggle between Three and Eight. 

Eight says "not guilty" and Three repeats the words after him, surrendering the knife in the same moment. This action symbolizes Three's surrender. Eight's way of persuading Three in this passage is mostly nonverbal. He seems more powerful than Three because he does not seem afraid, even though Three is threatening him with a knife. Three, on the other hand, notes that "he is alone" and seems cowed by this. Three does not take a stand, as Eight did, but surrenders when he is the only juror on one side of the equation. Even though Eight has achieved a great feat by convincing eleven jurors to switch to his side, the strength of Eight's character calls the process of justice into question. Eight is smart, persuasive, courageous, and powerful (more powerful than Three in this passage), and it seems these things, more so than the truth of the kid's situation, have resulted in the conclusion of this play and the justice that is served. 

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Switch knife Symbol Timeline in Twelve Angry Men

The timeline below shows where the symbol Switch knife appears in Twelve Angry Men. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Justice Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Juror Three brings up one of the “answered” questions, the switch knife the boy bought. Juror Eight responds by asking to see the knife again—the Foreman looks... (full context)
Justice Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Prejudice vs. Sympathies Theme Icon
As the guard goes to get the switch knife , Juror Four leads the jury in establishing the facts surrounding the knife. The boy... (full context)
Justice Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Juror Four, now holding the switch knife that has been brought back into the room by the guard, challenges Juror Eight on... (full context)
Justice Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Juror Eight reveals that he bought the switch knife he just slammed into the wall for 2 dollars at a junk shop near the... (full context)
Justice Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Stubbornness and Taking a Stand Theme Icon
Prejudice vs. Sympathies Theme Icon
...shriek, the woman across the el tracks saw the murder occur, the boy had a switch knife like the murder weapon, the boy’s alibi is weak, and the boy did fight with... (full context)
Act 2
Reflection of American Society Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
The foreman removes the switch knife from the wall and returns it to the guard at the door. Four and Two... (full context)
Act 3
Stubbornness and Taking a Stand Theme Icon
...how a shorter man could kill a taller man with a downward stroke of a switch knife . Eight stands up and Three takes the knife before crouching down to be 6... (full context)
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Prejudice vs. Sympathies Theme Icon
Five says that a switch knife is always used underhanded, and that anyone who has used such a knife before would... (full context)
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Prejudice vs. Sympathies Theme Icon
...smart or is the kid dumb? Eight says that this kid is experienced with a switch knife , and it would take a very stupid kid to buy a knife and then... (full context)
Reflection of American Society Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Prejudice vs. Sympathies Theme Icon
...to take that chance. Eight continues the kid is dumb enough to use an obvious switch knife , but then becomes smart in the moment of using that knife. He's dumb enough... (full context)
Justice Theme Icon
Stubbornness and Taking a Stand Theme Icon
...Three and Eight. Eight says to Three that they're waiting on him. Three takes the switch knife and walks over to Eight. He looks at Eight and holds the knife, in proper... (full context)