Summary: Chapter 23
Bob Ewell’s threats are worrisome to everyone except Atticus. Atticus tells Jem and Scout that because he made Ewell look like a fool, Ewell needed to get revenge. Now that Ewell has gotten that vengefulness out of his system, Atticus expects no more trouble. Aunt Alexandra and the children remain worried. Meanwhile, Tom Robinson has been sent to another prison seventy miles away while his appeal winds through the court system. Atticus feels that his client has a good chance of being pardoned. When Scout asks what will happen if Tom loses, Atticus replies that Tom will go to the electric chair, as rape is a capital offense in Alabama.
Jem and Atticus discuss the justice of executing men for rape. The subject then turns to jury trials and to how all twelve men could have convicted Tom. Atticus tells Jem that in an Alabama court of law, a white man’s word always beats a black man’s, and that they were lucky to have the jury out so long. In fact, one man on the jury wanted to acquit—amazingly, it was one of the Cunninghams. Upon hearing this revelation, Scout announces that she wants to invite young Walter Cunningham to dinner, but Aunt Alexandra expressly forbids it, telling her that the Finches do not associate with trash.
Scout grows furious, and Jem hastily takes her out of the room. In his bedroom, Jem reveals his minimal growth of chest hair and tells Scout that he is going to try out for the football team in the fall. They discuss the class system—why their aunt despises the Cunninghams, why the Cunninghams look down on the Ewells, who hate black people, and other such matters. After being unable to figure out why people go out of their way to despise each other, Jem suggests Boo Radley does not come out of his house because he does not want to leave it.
Summary: Chapter 24
One day in August, Aunt Alexandra invites her missionary circle to tea. Scout, wearing a dress, helps Calpurnia bring in the tea, and Alexandra invites Scout to stay with the ladies. Scout listens to the missionary circle first discuss the plight of the poor Mrunas, a benighted African tribe being converted to Christianity, and then talk about how their own black servants have behaved badly ever since Tom Robinson’s trial. Miss Maudie shuts up their prattle with icy remarks. Suddenly, Atticus appears and calls Alexandra to the kitchen. There he tells her, Scout, Calpurnia, and Miss Maudie that Tom Robinson attempted to escape and was shot seventeen times. He takes Calpurnia with him to tell the Robinson family of Tom’s death. Alexandra asks Miss Maudie how the town can allow Atticus to wreck himself in pursuit of justice. Maudie replies that the town trusts him to do right. They return with Scout to the missionary circle, managing to act as if nothing is wrong.
Summary: Chapter 25
September has begun and Jem and Scout are on the back porch when Scout notices a roly-poly bug. She is about to mash it with her hand when Jem tells her not to. She dutifully places the bug outside. When she asks Jem why she shouldn’t have mashed it, he replies that the bug didn’t do anything to harm her. Scout observes that it is Jem, not she, who is becoming more and more like a girl. Her thoughts turn to Dill, and she remembers him telling her that he and Jem ran into Atticus as they started home from swimming during the last two days of August. Jem had convinced Atticus to let them accompany him to Helen Robinson’s house, where they saw her collapse even before Atticus could say that her husband, Tom, was dead. Meanwhile, the news occupies Maycomb’s attention for about two days, and everyone agrees that it is typical for a black man to do something irrational like try to escape. Mr. Underwood writes a long editorial condemning Tom’s death as the murder of an innocent man. The only other significant reaction comes when Bob Ewell is overheard saying that Tom’s death makes “one down and about two more to go.” Summer ends and Dill leaves.
Analysis: Chapters 23–25
When he reassures his family that Bob Ewell does not really intend to harm him, Atticus advises Jem to stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes, echoing the advice that he gives Scout earlier in the novel and evoking one of the most important moral themes in the book. Here, however, Atticus’s attempt to understand another human falls short: he makes an honest mistake in his analysis by failing to understand the depth of Ewell’s anger toward him. Aunt Alexandra is more insightful, maintaining that a man like Ewell will do anything to get revenge. Although her comments seem typical of her tendency to stereotype “those people” who are different from the Finches, her analysis of Ewell proves correct. For all her faults, Aunt Alexandra gains, by way of her stereotypes, a basically reliable understanding of the people of Maycomb.
Both Jem and Scout are forced to face the adult world in these chapters to an unprecedented degree. In fact, Jem is actually beginning to enter the adult world, showing Scout his chest hair and contemplating trying out for football. Jem and Atticus discuss the judicial system in Maycomb County for much of Chapter 23. Their conversation is an education for Jem in the realities not only of the jury system but also of life. Atticus’s revelation that the Cunningham on the jury wanted to acquit Tom presents Jem with a remarkable instance of an uneducated white man being able to see beyond his ingrained racial prejudice—a further indication that the adult world is complex rather than black and white, as is the world of children.
Scout, meanwhile, moves closer to the adult world by drawing closer to Alexandra. Alexandra’s refusal to have the lowly Walter Cunningham to dinner puts her at odds with Jem and Scout, providing them with another opportunity to deride Maycomb’s ludicrously irrational social hierarchy. But the missionary tea party reveals Alexandra’s better side. The scene brilliantly portrays the hypocrisy of the Maycomb ladies. “Mrs. Merriweather’s large brown eyes always filled up with tears when she considered the oppressed [in Africa],” Scout notes, yet the same woman can complain that “there’s nothing more distracting than a sulky darky.” In the wake of hearing of Tom Robinson’s tragic death, however, the tea party becomes an opportunity for the Finch women to display moral courage by maintaining a public facade of composure. Mr. Underwood likens Tom’s death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds,” an obvious reference to the novel’s title. In this moment, Alexandra and Scout stand together as finches, as harmless as mockingbirds, forced to bear the white community’s utter disregard of justice.
Whereas Jem embraces entrance into the adult world, Scout seems reluctant about it. Jem proudly shows Scout his chest hair as a mark of his emergence into manhood. Scout’s badge of incipient womanhood, the dress that she wears to the missionary circle meeting, doesn’t suit her; she wears her usual tomboy trousers underneath. Additionally, whereas Jem intently discusses aspects of the complicated legal system with Atticus, Miss Stephanie teases the young Scout about growing up to be a lawyer. This difference in maturity between Jem and Scout manifests itself in the incident with the roly-poly bug. Wishing to withdraw back into the childhood world of actions without abstract significance, Scout moves to crush the bug. Jem, now sensitive to the vulnerability of those who are oppressed, urges her to leave the defenseless bug alone.