Twelve Angry Men

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Reflection of American Society Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Reflection of American Society Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Stubbornness and Taking a Stand Theme Icon
Prejudice vs. Sympathies Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Twelve Angry Men, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Reflection of American Society Theme Icon

The process of a trial by a jury of one’s peers is often considered to be both a reflection and core practice of American democratic society. This play runs with that idea, using the jury itself—as a group and as individuals—to reflect both the things that may unite Americans and their differences in background, prejudices, daily concerns, and ideals. The characters are a cross-section of professions, classes, ages, and immigrant status, whose differences inform how they work with each other and their gut reactions to the murder case at issue. As the trial continues, Juror Eight feels sympathy—maybe too much—for the boy on trial because the slums are a tough place to grow up, while Juror Five relates to the boy because he has a boy like him, and Juror Eleven relates the boy’s experiences to what it was like for him growing up in Europe. Meanwhile, Juror Ten holds a virulent prejudice against people like “them” who grew up poor and as a minority (this last is only implied). Significantly, it is the “outsiders”—Juror Eleven, who is an immigrant, and Juror Nine, who is an elderly man—who most believe in the American justice system and want to ensure a fair trial.

When all the jurors’ ideals and backgrounds come in close contact in the closed jury room, social differences become personal arguments and attacks. Slowly, though, as the jurors are forced to sift through the evidence after Juror Eight alone votes “not guilty” in the initial vote, they become more willing to hear each other out and look past appearances. Now the men are trying to work together within the American jury system, with the notable exception of the extremely stubborn Juror Three. Though portraying, literally, just a jury hashing out a case, the play could also be said to show the men hashing out their identities as Americans with ambivalent feelings about the jury process, and by extension, their roles as American citizens.

It is notable that the play is not trying to portray American society at one particular time, such as when it was first staged in 1964. It also leaves the particular identities of the characters ambiguous, encouraging the audience to think beyond their preconceptions or knowledge of particular races and cultures. Instead, the stage directions and setup encourage a sense of timelessness and universal applicability: the setting of the play is described simply as “the present”, and the characters are not given names or characteristics that would date them. Instead of detailed descriptions of, say, ethnicity or class, the characters are given general descriptions, each more like a character type, some based on social status and others simply on personality. For example, Juror Four “seems to be a man of wealth and position” and Juror Five is “naïve.” In this way, the play attempts to portray what it sees as the universal conflicts and currents that drive American society, and the way those conflicts and currents can, at times, produce an American society that is both messy (after all, the definite guilt or innocence of the accused is never established) but also founded on common ideals of justice, freedom, and citizens’ responsibility.

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Reflection of American Society ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Reflection of American Society appears in each Act of Twelve Angry Men. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Reflection of American Society Quotes in Twelve Angry Men

Below you will find the important quotes in Twelve Angry Men related to the theme of Reflection of American Society.
Act 1 Quotes

Murder in the first degree—premeditated homicide—is the most serious charge tried in our criminal courts. You've heard a long and complex case, gentlemen, and it is now your duty to sit down to try and separate the facts from the fancy. One man is dead. The life of another is at stake. If there is a reasonable doubt in your minds as to the guilt of the accused . . . then you must declare him not guilty. If, however, there is no reasonable doubt, then he must be found guilty. Whichever way you decide, the verdict must be unanimous. I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully. You are faced with a grave responsibility. Thank you, gentlemen.

Related Characters: Judge (speaker), Accused kid, Murdered father
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

The play opens with the judge in a criminal court case summarizing for both audience and jury what is at stake in this case. His words spell out the basic principles of the American legal system: a jury must declare the accused guilty if, and only if, his or her guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. This passage has the dual effect of setting the scene and introducing a few of the most contentious topics of the play. Broadly, the judge places the play in conversation with the American legal system. The setting of the play is timeless, but the twelve jurors represent a diverse body of Americans intended to present a variety of types of opinions from a variety of types of people, with a variety of types of prejudices and personalities--all in connection to the timeless legal and social issues addressed in the play. 

The topic of this play is justice, but also the way the very human jury thinks about and perceives justice. The judge establishes the jurors' responsibility to be a "grave" one and asks that they "deliberate honestly and thoughtfully." The next several lines of the play show a different reality, as the men complain about the court proceedings and rush the deliberation process. Furthermore, the idea of "reasonable doubt" is highlighted immediately in this opening passage. Reasonable doubt, what it is and what constitutes reasonable doubt in this specific case, will be under debate throughout the play--particularly when reasonable doubt is in the hands of unreasonable humans.


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Five: I've lived in a slum all my life.

Ten: Oh, now wait a second!

Five: I used to play in a back yard that was filled with garbage. Maybe it still smells on me.

Foreman: Now let's be reasonable. There's nothing personal.

[Five stands up.]

Five: There is something personal!

Related Characters: Foreman (speaker), Five (speaker), Ten (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Juror Five, who is more youthful than the other jurors and who comes from a poor background, takes objection to Ten's ongoing prejudice against the group of people that includes the kid. This prejudice seems to be based on the group's low socio-economic class, which Ten sees as contributing to their violence toward others and their deceptive natures. Five realizes that Ten could be speaking about him, indirectly, because his background makes him a member of this group. Ten immediately backtracks and the Foreman tries to soothe the situation, but the Foreman's comment points out the problem with Ten's prejudice. The Foreman tries to soothe Five by saying that their is nothing personal in Ten's comments, meaning he is not directly attacking Five. But Five sees how his prejudice, although spoken generically about a group of people, directly impacts individual people, of which he could be considered one. 

This diversity within the jury shows the jury to be a "slice" of American life. Ten is pitted against the accused, but Five is sympathetic toward him because he sees the similarities in their lives. The jurors represent a variety of different viewpoints because of their different backgrounds. Because of this diversity, the jury, as a whole, is able to consider the accused kid and the evidence from a variety of different angles of prejudice and sympathy that, ideally, balance each other out in their decision-making process. 

Act 2 Quotes

Eleven: Please. I would like to say something here. I have always thought that a man was entitled to have unpopular opinions in this country. This is the reason I came here. I wanted to have the right to disagree. In my own country, I am ashamed to say that.

Related Characters: Eleven (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

The vote of a single "not guilty," even though Eight has abstained, causes a strong backlash. Some jurors angrily express a desire to know who changed his vote. Eleven points out the problem with this: each person should be entitled to vote as he wills, even if that vote is unpopular. This is another ideal tenant of justice which is, clearly, not always perfectly fulfilled in practice. Eleven cites the founding American principle of free speech. The protection of free speech is all the more necessary and valuable when the speech being protected is unpopular. 

Eleven is an immigrant, which is another example of the jury's diversity and another source of tension among the jurors who don't all accept Eleven in a way that's free from prejudice. As an immigrant, he has a unique understanding of American society and the American legal system. Unlike the other jurors, who might take their free speech and their right to dissent for granted, Eleven sees this as a strong point of American justice. In his home country, he didn't have the right to disagree, and freedom of speech is one important reason he came to America. Although this is an American ideal, it is easily forgotten in daily life. Eleven's "outsider" perspective remembers and prioritizes this ideal, while the other jurors are caught up in their emotional reactions to the proceedings in the jury room. 

Nine: [Pointing at Eight] This gentleman chose to stand alone against us. That's his right. It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone even if you believe in something very strongly. He left the verdict up to us. He gambled for support, and I gave it to him. I want to hear more. The vote is ten to two.

Related Characters: Nine (speaker), Eight
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:

In the face of ongoing pressure to reveal who changed their vote to "not guilty," Nine reveals that it was he who changed his mind. It seems that he speaks up in order to protect Five, whom Three assumes is the "culprit." In this passage, Nine explains why he changed his vote. His explanation tackles the difference between stubbornness and taking a stand. He admires Eight for exercising his right to disagree because to do so takes courage, a value not included in simple stubbornness, which is generally just selfish. Nine is curious about what else Eight will say because of Eight's willingness to take a risk and to "gamble for support."

Interestingly, Nine's change of heart isn't based on logic or on information about the actual case. It is based solely on the force of Eight's character and his persuasive request for support. While Nine is the oldest juror, and inclined to measured thinking and speaking, this passage shows that he "thinks with his heart," like many of the other jurors. He is persuaded not by reason, but by emotion. This is a reflection of human character more broadly, and it demonstrates the power of Eight's dissension and persuasive speech, as more and more jurors join the "not guilty" side. 

Eight: You want to see this boy die because you personally want it—not because of the facts.

Three: Shut up!

[He lunges at Eight, but is caught by two of the jurors and held. He struggles as Eight watches calmly.]

Three: Let me go. I'll kill him. I’ll kill him!

Eight: You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Eight (speaker), Accused kid
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Eight argues that the kid's overhead yell of "I'll kill you" should not be treated as evidence of intention. Many people would say such a thing in an impassioned moment and not follow through with it, or even actually mean it. This is a (relatively) common phrase expressing anger, and should not be treated as a statement of intent or premeditation. Minutes later, the tension between Eight and Three rises to a fevered pitch, as Eight accuses Three of arguing for the accused kid to die because he "personally wants it." This conclusion shows the difference between ideal justice and reality. Eight is pointing out that Three is motivated by personal judgements. He is not operating as an unbiased judge of the situation. 

This accusation angers Three, who is always quick to respond emotionally. His anger seems to derive from the fact that Eight would make such a bold and offensive claim implying that Three wants someone to die. Three's anger and following comments hurt his reputation far more than Eight's accusation, however, because he seems to confirm his own hotheadedness, while also proving Eight's point from earlier. He yells that he'll kill Eight, because he's angry that Eight would accuse him of wanting someone dead, which is a very ironic twist. Eight's reply points almost too neatly to their earlier conversation. Does Three really mean this, or is he speaking in the heat of passion? And if he doesn't really mean it, why couldn't the same have been true of the accused kid's circumstances?

Act 3 Quotes

Eleven: We have a responsibility. This is a remarkable thing about democracy. That we are...ummmm... what is the word...Ah, notified! That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong. We should not make it a personal thing.

Related Characters: Eleven (speaker)
Page Number: 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

Juror Eleven, the immigrant, continues to hold onto and remind others of the ideals of justice and the way the American legal system has been designed to uphold these ideals. One aspect of this design that is effective, Eleven feels, is that the jurors have never met the accused before and so have no reason to be swayed in one way or another. He says that they have "nothing to gain or lose," and that this lack of bias makes them strong. This is, of course, an idealization of the process of trial-by-jury that has already been undercut by the actions of the play itself. Eleven believes that the jury should be impartial, and yet it is clear that the jury members have a variety of prejudices reflective of the diverse perspectives of American society. Eleven thinks that only knowing the accused would lead them to be impartial when, in fact, the jurors' own personal experiences have biased them before they ever saw the accused kid or heard about the case. 

The final line of this passage shows that Eleven is aware of his statements about justice as an ideal. He says that the jurors "should not make it a personal thing." He has earlier highlighted their responsibility as selected jurors to fulfill their duty well. The word "should" in his statement shows that he sees this as an ideal that the jurors are striving toward, not reaching. They "should" be acting without bias, but they're not. 

Eleven: I beg your pardon, but maybe you don’t understand the term, “reasonable doubt.”
Seven: [angrily] What do you mean, I don’t understand it? Who do you think you are to talk to me like that? [To all] How do you like this guy? He comes over here running for his life, and before he can even take a big breath he’s telling us how to run the show. The arrogance of him!
Four: No one here is asking where anyone came from.
Seven: I was born right here.
Four: Or where your father came from. [Looks at Seven, who looks away.]

Related Characters: Four (speaker), Seven (speaker), Eleven (speaker)
Page Number: 53-54
Explanation and Analysis:

Seven takes personal offense when Eleven says that he does not understand the term "reasonable doubt." Seven's reaction shows that he is offended specifically because Eleven criticized him. Because Eleven is an immigrant, Seven implies that he has no right to tell him what to do or how to do it. He sees Eleven's attempt to correct him as arrogance, stating that because Eleven is an immigrant he is less entitled to speak about the American legal system. Four points out the unfairness of this attack because it is based on personal history. He says that no one should be asking about anyone's family's background. Seven feels he is different from Eleven because he was born in the United States, but Four's response "or where your father came from" implies that Seven is a first generation American.

Four's argument shows that Seven and Eleven have more in common than Seven might like to admit. America is a diverse nation of immigrants and using this as a basis for discrimination strikes Four as inaccurate and pointless, because it is something that many people have in common. He points out the illogical nature of Seven's prejudice against an immigrant when this is part of his background as well. Everyone is quick to think and speak from his own point of view, but this play repeatedly analyzes the problems with this. One problem is that you might have more in common than you suspect with someone whom you are prejudiced against. 

Three: …You made all the arguments. You can’t turn now. A guilty man’s going to be walking the streets. A murderer! He’s got to die! Stay with me!...

Four: I’m sorry. I’m convinced. I don’t think I’m wrong often, but I guess I was this once. There is a reasonable doubt in my mind.

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Four (speaker), Accused kid
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

Juror Four maintains his rational thinking throughout the play. He switches sides with grace once he feels that "there is a reasonable doubt in my mind." In his measured thinking and unbiased rationality, Four embodies a sort of "ideal juror." He holds onto the ideal of the justice system--that reasonable doubt results in a "not guilty" verdict--and he isn't swayed by passion or stubbornness, but by measured persuasion. He exhibits strength in this passage by publicly admitting he was wrong. This shows the contrast between him and Three, who stubbornly sticks to his viewpoint. Four demonstrates that stubbornness is not the same thing as taking a righteous stand, and that gracefully yielding is more valuable than being stubborn in the face of reason. 

Three is stubborn, but he is also certain of the kid's guilt, as if blind to the rational arguments made by others. He is horrified by the thought of a murderer walking the streets free. He feels certain that the kid must die to pay for his crime. Three sees Four's rational arguments against the kid (and his initial "guilty" vote) as evidence that Four was on his side, rather than as examples of Four's rational thinking. It is difficult for Three to imagine being convinced by evidence when, throughout the play, it is clear that he makes his judgements through gut instinct, as he did when he stated that anyone "could see" that the kid was a murderer, just by looking at him. 

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.