Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.
Scout is describing her home early in the novel. This line serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it provides a sense of the town. Maycomb is old, but in the 1930s it was also tired. On the other hand, the line also signals to the reader that the narrator is looking back on her memories of an earlier time and a place that may have changed since the events she’s describing. This duality between the thoughts of Scout the child and Scout the narrator will continue throughout the novel.
Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham.
Scout is speaking to her teacher on the first day of school. Because Scout is part of the Maycomb community, she understands that the fact that Walter is a Cunningham means that he does not have any lunch or any money, and that he won’t borrow any money because he will never be able to pay it back. Scout expects Miss Caroline to understand this information, but Miss Caroline doesn’t have the kind of community knowledge that Scout does.
A nigger-lover. I ain’t very sure what it means, but the way Francis said it—tell you one thing right now, Uncle Jack, I’ll be—I swear before God if I’ll sit there and let him say somethin‘ about Atticus.
Scout is speaking to her uncle about the insults that she has heard in town regarding her father. The line captures Scout’s essential nature in that she is furious and ready to rise to her father’s defense, but she does not understand the implications of the insult that people are using. The line exemplifies Scout’s fierce loyalty to her family, and also her innocence, which at times prevents her from fully understanding the events around her.
But I never figured out how Atticus knew I was listening, and it was not until many years later that I realized he wanted me to hear every word he said.
Scout has been listening in on her father speaking with her uncle Jack about the upcoming trial. Atticus hopes that the bitterness and racism that the trial is bound to stir up do not affect his children. Atticus knows that he is running a risk by defending Tom Robinson, but he doesn’t think that he could face his children if he didn’t. This is another line that illustrates the difference in what Scout understands as a child and what she will come to understand years later. The line also shows Atticus as controlling his children’s impression of him, and always being aware of how they perceive him.
I never understood her preoccupation with heredity. Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.
Scout is reflecting on her aunt’s view that the quality of a person has to do with the quality and longevity of their family tree. Heredity is just one of several ways of ranking people that Scout hears throughout the novel. Elsewhere she encounters the idea that people should be measured by their social position within the community or their race. However, Scout doesn’t entirely believe in these system of judging people, as “somewhere” (most likely from Atticus) she has learned to judge people by what they do, not who they come from.
She couldn’t live like Mr. Dolphus Raymond, who preferred the company of Negroes, because she didn’t own a riverbank and she wasn’t from a fine old family. Nobody said, “That’s just their way,” about the Ewells. Maycomb gave them Christmas baskets, welfare money, and the back of its hand.
Here, Scout is thinking about Mayella Ewell, and the way Mayella’s lower-class status constrict her socially. All of the horrors of the trial and its aftermath ultimately trace back to Mayella’s decision to seek romantic comfort with a black man. Here Scout realizes that a double standard applies to white people who want to associate with black people. Mr. Dolphus Raymond, who comes from a prominent family and owns property, can live as he pleases, but for Mayella, who belongs to a family that the community looks upon with pity and contempt, no such possibility ever exists.
Until my father explained it to me later, I did not understand the subtlety of Tom’s predicament: he would not have dared strike a white woman under any circumstances and expect to live long, so he took the first opportunity to run—a sure sign of guilt.
Here Scout realizes that Tom Robinson was the victim of injustice long before he got to court. If he defended himself against Mayella he would have likely been killed, but running away made him look guilty of the crime Mayella accused him of. Tom truly can’t win. In such a circumstance, Tom has no reason to believe that the legal system will ever treat him fairly.
That Walter’s as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy. Nothin’s wrong with him. Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.
Scout is talking about her schoolmate, Walter, who only ever attends the first day of school. She recognizes that Walter’s circumstances put him at a disadvantage, but he isn’t inherently unintelligent. Scout goes on to extend this realization to everyone. Scout’s view is simplistic, even childish, but it boldly rejects the stratification and segregation which pervades Maycomb. Coming near the end of the novel, this quote also demonstrates Scout’s growing sense of compassion and capacity for independent thought.
Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.
Scout has this realization while reading an editorial about the trial of Tom Robinson. She is confused by the fact that the trial seemed to be fair and in accordance with the letter of the law, but Mr. Underwood, the author of the newspaper editorial seems to be reacting as if it wasn’t. In this moment, Scout recognizes that even though all of the steps of due process had been carried out, something deeper was at work to condemn Tom Robinson.
So many things had happened to us, Boo Radley was the least of our fears.
Toward the end of the book, in Chapter 26, Scout is reflecting on how much her life with Jem has changed. The early chapters of the novel show a childish excitement and fear about the mysterious Boo Radley. The children’s manufactured fear of Boo is a stand-in for their general fear of the unknown. By the end of the novel the tensions and threats that surround Scout and Jem are very real and knowable. These more real fears make the fear of Boo from earlier summers seem trivial by comparison.