Summary and Analysis
Jean Louise and Hank meet Atticus and Aunt Alexandra at the Finch residence. Jean Louise asks for news about Maycomb, and Alexandra reports the tragic death of one of their relatives. Atticus responds by giving more details, explaining that the youth had died as the result of his own stupidity and that “it wasn’t sad at all.” Atticus tries to ask his daughter about New York City, but she redirects the conversation back to Maycomb gossip.
Alexandra comments on Jean Louise’s outfit, wishing that her niece would dress better while in Maycomb. Jean Louise maintains that the inhabitants of Maycomb are accustomed to seeing her dressed casually and would be shocked by anything more proper. She mentions menstruation, and Atticus silences her, asking her to apologize to her aunt, which she does. When Jean Louise asks Atticus about his health, particularly his arthritis and failing vision, he challenges her to a golf game to prove he is still physically capable.
Before Hank and Atticus leave for work, Atticus asks Jean Louise whether the recent Supreme Court decision has been in the New York newspapers. Jean Louise says that some newspapers are reviling the South for its racism, and she cites several other recent racial issues that have been brought to court. Atticus mentions the NAACP, and Jean Louise responds that she knows little about it but once included its seal on her Christmas cards—which angered her relatives.
The Supreme Court decision which Atticus asks Jean Louise about is almost certainly the Brown v. Board of Education ruling handed down in 1954. This ruling, which declared that any state law segregating schools is unconstitutional, was a centerpiece of the legal battles over American race relations in the mid-1900s. Jean Louise’s other comments in response to Atticus’ question, including her references to lynchings and bus strikes, make it clear that their conversation here is really about race.
The ways that Atticus, Jean Louise, and Hank each respond to this topic reveals something about their attitudes toward racial equality. Atticus seems skeptical of the Supreme Court’s decision: He calls it a “bid for immortality,” implying that the Court is more interested in creating a legacy than in upholding the Constitution. He also asks if the newspapers “made hay” in their handling of a recent issue, suggesting that the news has exaggerated the severity of race issues.
Jean Louise is clearly not hostile to racial equality, as her use of the NAACP seals implies. (The NAACP was the primary legal group taking initiative in cases like Brown v. Board of Education.) Yet she also claims to know very little about the NAACP, seeming politely disinterested in its efforts. In this sense, Jean Louise appears to be a typically mid-1900s Northerner, theoretically opposed to the oppression of blacks but lacking the conviction to take a serious interest in changing the status quo.
Significantly, Hank stays silent during this conversation. He doesn’t speak again except to confirm his date with Jean Louise that night and to forbid her from wearing slacks. Both his silence and his request that Jean Louise dress like a Southern lady suggest that he is the sort of person who silently supports the status quo.
Issues of race will be treated much more thoroughly later in the novel and become one of its central themes, but this casual introduction to the issue, in the midst of other hometown gossip, is important. For the Finches, race seems like a marginal issue at this moment—although it will not remain that way for long.