Summary and Analysis
Jean Louise, reflecting on her relationship with Alexandra, remembers the time her aunt tried to convince her to stay in Maycomb and care for her father after her brother Jem’s death. Jean Louise refused, but Alexandra succeeded in making Jean Louise feel guilty for returning to New York. Jean Louise realizes that although Alexandra irritates her, she is grateful to her aunt for looking after Atticus.
In the present day, Alexandra offers to throw a Coffee (a ladies’ party) for her niece. Jean Louise accepts reluctantly. She casually asks Alexandra how she would feel if Hank became her nephew. Alexandra objects on the basis of Hank’s family background, saying that Hank would not be a suitable husband for Jean Louise. When Jean Louise calls her aunt’s thinking outmoded, Alexandra becomes harsher, calling Hank “trash” and accusing him of trying to inherit Atticus’ good reputation. Unable to keep her cool, Jean Louise tells Alexandra to go pee in her hat.
Hearing about the incident from Alexandra, Atticus chides Jean Louise for cussing at her aunt. Jean Louise explains that Alexandra was insulting Hank, which silences Atticus. Hank arrives to take Jean Louise on their date, and Jean Louise realizes that her aunt’s prohibition of her marrying Hank has made her want to marry him more than ever before.
One of the novel’s major themes is the layered complexity of human beings, that they can be neither wholly good nor wholly bad but rather good and bad at the same time. In this chapter, Alexandra embodies this theme. Her stubbornness is a character flaw and an irritation to Jean Louise, yet it is also the trait that leads Alexandra to look after Atticus so well. She loves and cares for Jean Louise deeply, but this care feels overbearing and smothering, especially when she tells Jean Louise that marrying Hank is off limits.
Alexandra’s disapproval of Hank reflects the cultural pattern of her time. Although Hank now lives what appears to be a reputable life according to Maycomb’s standards of respectability, the fact that he comes from a dubious family renders him an object of suspicion, someone assumed less worthy and less desirable regardless of his current position.
Hank’s inability (in Alexandra’s eyes) to earn the right to marry Jean Louise mimics, to a lesser degree, the challenges faced by blacks fighting for civil rights at that time. Although many blacks had demonstrated their ability to become successful and respectable according to white standards of success and respectability, they were regarded with suspicion nonetheless. Whites presumed that blacks’ underprivileged lineage as children of slaves and poorly educated laborers made them inherently lower in status.
Note that Alexandra’s condemnation of Hank inspires Jean Louise to support him more passionately. Jean Louise’s instinct to stand up for the underprivileged foreshadows her later instinct to stand up for the rights of the black community when she hears that community being denigrated as lower class. Apparently Jean Louise is the sort of person who defaults to anger when someone she loves seems to be under attack.