To Kill a Mockingbird By Harper Lee Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapters 10-11

Summary

Jem and Scout lament the fact that "Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty." The children believe that Atticus' "advanced" age keeps him from doing the sorts of things other children's fathers do. Their view of their father changes when they see him shoot a mad dog.

As Tom Robinson's trial grows closer, Jem and Scout endure more slurs against their father. When their neighbor Mrs. Dubose, a mean, elderly woman confined to a wheelchair, makes a particularly stinging remark, Jem retaliates by destroying some of her flowers. Of course, Atticus hears what happened and he makes Jem apologize to Mrs. Dubose, letting her decide his punishment. Jem is sentenced to read to Mrs. Dubose after school for one month. Scout chooses to accompany Jem. Shortly after Jem is relieved from duty, Mrs. Dubose dies. Only then does Atticus tell the children that Mrs. Dubose was very sick and fighting an extremely valiant battle against addiction.

Analysis

The last two chapters of Part 1 complete the background for the trial that is coming in Part 2. Scout and Jem learn some impressive things about their father — things that will ultimately help them understand why Atticus is compelled to defend Tom Robinson. The children also confront ugliness and hostility, only to find that the reason behind the behavior follows the ethical high ground.

The title of To Kill a Mockingbird is explained in Chapter 10. When Atticus procures air guns for Scout and Jem, he warns them to "'remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'" This statement surprises Scout — Atticus doesn't make a habit of saying that things are sinful. Scout takes her confusion to Miss Maudie who explains, "'mockingbirds . . . don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.'" Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are both mockingbirds in this story, but Scout doesn't realize that fully until the end of the novel.

Beyond the mockingbird image, Lee continues bird symbolism in the case of the bird dog, Tim Johnson. Tim is "the pet of Maycomb," but one day the children discover him acting strangely. Calpurnia confirms that the dog is very sick, and consequently, very dangerous. Although the children recognize that the dog's behavior is odd, he doesn't look mad to them. Mad dogs are supposed to have certain characteristics, as Scout testifies when she says, "Had Tim Johnson behaved thus, I would have been less frightened." Significantly, Scout will learn that the town behaves much like Tim Johnson during Tom's trial. They appear to be the same, but danger lurks beneath. More significant still is that as Tim approaches the neighborhood, even the mockingbirds become still.

Through Tim Johnson, Jem and Scout gain further insight into their father, just as they will through Tom Robinson's trial. To their delight, Jem and Scout discover that Atticus was nicknamed One-Shot Finch as a boy. Jem and Scout can't understand why Atticus doesn't continue to use his innate talent for hunting like other men in Maycomb do. Again, the children take their confusion to Miss Maudie who explains, "'I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things.'" Atticus is simply unwilling to take advantage of something that can't fight back. In fact, he feels that his talent for shooting demands that he be more careful and thoughtful about those unable to fight. This stance is one of the reasons that Atticus must defend Tom, a black man helpless against the rifles of prejudice carried by many whites in Maycomb.

When Calpurnia tries to warn the Radleys about Tim Johnson's approach, Lee deftly keeps the lower-class status of blacks in the forefront by having Scout comment "'She's supposed to go around in back.'" Calpurnia is the closest thing to a mother that the Finch children have, but at a tender age, Scout recognizes that different rules apply to blacks and whites. The fact that she doesn't question these rules is not a character flaw on her part. In the American South during this time period, segregation was the law. Scout would not have any concept that these rules were demeaning or unfair, as is evidenced by her asking Atticus to define the term "nigger-lover" for her.

Jem and Scout are forced to once again alter their definition of bravery in these chapters, as well. When Atticus cheerily greets Mrs. Dubose, Scout believes him to "be the bravest man who ever lived." Ironically, then, Atticus tells his children that Mrs. Dubose "'was the bravest person I ever knew.'" The fact that someone so foul and mean could be brave is new to Jem and Scout. The children hate her until the moment Atticus explains her bravery to them.

Scout is proud that she has chosen to be a coward at Atticus' behest by no longer fist fighting with children who make disparaging remarks. So Atticus' statement that "'real courage is . . . when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what'" is a revelation to Scout as well as Jem.

This revelation also brings up the role of conscience in the novel, which Lee treats in a fairly overt manner. When Scout questions the sense in defending Tom, Atticus offers, "'Tom Robinson's case, is something that goes to the essence of a man's conscience — Scout, I couldn't go to church and worship God if I didn't try to help that man.'" Although Jem's reaction to Mrs. Dubose's final gift to him seems strong, readers should understand that Jem is actually grappling with his conscience. After all the wicked things he's thought about Mrs. Dubose, he discovers the reasons behind her behavior were understandable, if not acceptable. Not only has Jem learned a new way of defining courage, but he is also forced to look at the motivations for his own actions.

The issues of masculinity and femininity continue to have a role in these chapters. Scout doesn't think it odd that Atticus buys an air rifle for her as well as Jem, although girls traditionally aren't sharpshooters. Jem's admiration for Atticus continues to grow, so much so that Jem begins to consider himself "a gentleman." Ironically, then, when Jem is cautioning Scout about reacting to Mrs. Dubose, instead of telling her to act like a lady, he says, "'Don't pay any attention to her, just hold your head high and be a gentleman.'" Later, Jem is completely shocked to hear Atticus refer to Mrs. Dubose as "a great lady" when both she and her mouth are so vile.

Glossary

philippic a bitter verbal attack.

umbrage offense or resentment.

interdict to prohibit (an action) or prohibit the use of (a thing); forbid with authority.

Dixie Howell popular University of Alabama football player in the 1930s.

palliation the lessening of pain or severity without actually curing; alleviation.

reconnaissance an exploratory survey or examination, as in seeking out information about enemy positions or installations, or as in making a preliminary geological or engineering survey.

calomel mercurous chloride, HgCl, a white, tasteless powder that darkens on exposure to light: used in standard electrode cells and in agriculture and medicine to fight skin bacteria.

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