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The protagonist of this book is Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a twenty-six-year-old woman from Maycomb, Alabama. At the beginning of the novel, Jean Louise is on a train from New York City to Maycomb Junction for her annual trip home. She usually flies, but this time, she wanted to spare her father, Atticus Finch, the inconvenience of driving over a hundred miles to pick her up. Jean Louise reminisces about a long-departed, insane relative, Cousin Joshua, who fancied himself a great poet.
Maycomb is such a small, sleepy town that Jean Louise has to remind the conductor not to forget to let her off the train. She gets off at Maycomb Junction, which is actually twenty miles away. Maycomb County is strangely shaped because of political gerrymandering, and it is so cut off from the rest of the South that some of its oldest citizens still vote Republican, even ninety years after the Civil War, when the entire rest of the South votes Democrat.
When the train pulls into Maycomb Junction, Jean Louise expects Atticus to be waiting there for her, but he is not. Instead, Henry Clinton, her lifelong childhood friend and now suitor, appears and kisses her. Henry tells Jean Louise that Atticus’s arthritis is bothering him, so he drives her home instead.
Henry had been best friends with Jean Louise’s older brother, Jem. When Jem suddenly dropped dead of a heart condition, Atticus hired Henry to become his junior associate at his law practice. Although Henry treats Atticus like a father, he treats Jean Louise like a lover. Even though Henry only gets to see Jean Louise for two weeks every year, they date whenever she is home, and he is convinced that they are going to get married. Jean Louise isn’t so sure. She tells Henry that she wants to have an affair with him, but not marry him. When Henry gets hurt, she apologizes, and they back off the subject, teasing and flirting with each other more lightly.
Atticus has problems physically because of his arthritis, but he is still very sharp mentally. When Jean Louise and Henry arrive, Atticus and his sister, Alexandra Finch Hancock, greet them. Alexandra and Jean Louise have always bickered constantly, and they both have short fuses. They gossip about people in town. Alexandra criticizes Jean Louise’s outfit because Jean Louise is wearing casual slacks, and Jean Louise starts to snap at her, when Atticus stops her. Jean Louise asks Atticus about his arthritis, and Atticus tells her that it’s none of her business. They briefly discuss politics, and the NAACP as well as the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education are brought up, but the conversation moves away from these issues.
Alexandra is a very imposing, opinionated figure, and she and Jean Louise have butted heads since Jean Louise’s childhood. When Jean Louise comes home to visit, she and Alexandra continue to disagree about everything. Although Alexandra is still technically married, her husband moved out to his fishing camp fifteen years ago and has never returned. Alexandra doesn’t care that her husband has gone, and she maintains her prominent position in Maycomb society. When Jem died, Alexandra told Jean Louise that Atticus needed her to stay at home and take care of him. Jean Louise argued that Atticus would want her to follow her ambitions, and Alexandra told her that she was being thoughtless. Now that Atticus’s arthritis has gotten worse, Alexandra has moved in with Atticus, and Jean Louise is secretly grateful.
Alexandra announces, to Jean Louise’s chagrin, that she is hosting a Coffee for her, which is a gathering of Maycomb ladies to scrutinize someone who has moved away. Jean Louise casually asks what Alexandra would think if Jean Louise married Henry, and Alexandra replies that Henry’s background isn’t quite up to the standards of the Finch family. When Jean Louise retorts that Atticus would love the match, Alexandra snaps back that Henry will never be suitable, which makes Jean Louise even more piqued. Henry picks her up for a Saturday evening date.
Even though Jean Louise has grown up and lives independently, she is still deeply connected to her roots in Maycomb. By taking a train from New York City to Maycomb, Jean Louise is not only traveling through space, she’s also traveling through time. The town is steeped in layers of memories and nostalgia. But Jean Louise does not just have a beautiful, rosy recollection of life in Maycomb. She knows that she’s moved forward with her life in many respects, and that she does not share the same values and goals as people still living there. But Jean Louise is still inextricably tethered to Maycomb in a deep way. Maycomb will always be her home, even though home might be a very uncomfortable place to be.
Jean Louise’s ancestors haunt Maycomb. Her family has lived in or near Maycomb for several generations, so all of her roots are firmly planted in this spot.
From the moment Jean Louise gets off the train, there is the hint that things are starting to change, since her old childhood friend / crush / lover Henry Clinton picks her up from the station. In the past, Atticus had always come to fetch her. Now, Henry fills the role of primary protector in Jean Louise’s life. Atticus can no longer be the guardian figure in Jean Louise’s life. She must grow up and develop her own familial relationships.
The relationship between Jean Louise and Henry is…complicated. They’re definitely more than just friends, but they’re not exactly a couple, since they only see each other once a year. They date regularly and seem very seriously together in the two weeks Jean Louise comes to visit, but it seems like they don’t really communicate that much for the rest of the year. Throughout the novel, Henry is consistent about what he wants from their relationship. Henry would like to marry Jean Louise and have her settle down with him in Maycomb. Jean Louise, on the other hand, is deeply conflicted. On the one hand, she does love Henry, but on the other, she’s not ready to settle down and marry him, and she’s not sure that they’re ultimately right for each other.
Jean Louise’s conflict about her relationship with Henry mirrors her complicated relationship with Maycomb itself. Although she feels like her opinions often directly oppose the majority view of people in town, she also knows that Maycomb is her home.
But Maycomb is changing, and it is hard for Jean Louise to reconcile her past recollections of Maycomb with her present perception of the town. One change that Jean Louise has already had to grapple with is the death of her older brother, Jem, who passed away suddenly of heart failure in his early twenties. Jean Louise had always looked up to Jem, and Henry had been Jem’s best friend. Henry is now like a son to Atticus. Henry is Atticus’s junior partner in his law firm, a role Jem would have most likely fulfilled had he lived. Jean Louise and Henry seem to have grown closer through their bond over the loss of a person they both deeply loved.
Another person with whom Jean Louise has a complicated relationship is her aunt, Alexandra. Jean Louise and Alexandra have butted heads ever since Jean Louise was a child. Alexandra knows just how to say the one thing that is guaranteed to get on Jean Louise’s nerves, and Jean Louise can’t stop herself from snapping back. Jean Louise knows that she’s not the proper Southern belle that Alexandra presents as an ideal model of womanhood, and she deliberately presses Alexandra’s buttons by wearing modern clothing and asserting her independence.
Jean Louise and Alexandra aren’t completely antagonistic, however. Jean Louise recognizes that Alexandra has had to fill the role of wife and daughter as well as sister in Atticus’s life. Atticus’s wife died when Jean Louise was very young, and Jean Louise doesn’t return to Maycomb after college, so when Jem dies, Atticus is essentially alone. Alexandra is also somewhat alone in the world. She is essentially unmarried, since she is estranged from her husband and hasn’t spoken to him in fifteen years. She also does not have a close relationship with her son. So Alexandra has entered the Finch family partly because she and Atticus both lack companionship. Even though Jean Louise doesn’t agree with Alexandra most of the time, blood ties run deep, and they do care about each other a great deal.
The person who seems to be the one rock-solid foundation in Jean Louise’s life is her father, Atticus Finch. Growing up, Jean Louise always relied on her father for moral and emotional guidance. Recently, her father’s arthritis has weakened him physically, but he still works every day in his law practice, and his mind seems as sharp as ever. Jean Louise thinks of Atticus as her anchor: as long as she can count on him to be her moral compass, everything else will sort itself out.