Summary and Analysis
Jean Louise reflects on the image she has always held of her father. Atticus is a person of integrity, following a simple New Testament ethical code and earning the respect of everyone in the Maycomb community. Jean Louise especially believes that she has been able to see the strength of her father’s character because of the hardships he has endured. After marrying late, he lost his wife to a heart attack when Jem was 6 and Jean Louise was 2. (The same weak heart killed Jem at the age of 28.)
Although Jean Louise never really knew her mother, she never felt deprived of parental love. Atticus was a busy man, but he was never too busy for his children. Eventually, Jean Louise recalls, she began to need Calpurnia’s womanly insight in her life when she reached puberty and began menstruating. Even as she grew up into a woman, Atticus and Jack continued to raise her to be self-sufficient—in violation of the norm of the women around her.
Jean Louise comes to realize that her own definition of moral decency has been defined by her father’s behavior. She had become complacent in the assumption that her father was perfect, or nearly so.
After the trauma of seeing her father and Hank at the citizens’ council meeting, Jean Louise becomes increasingly introspective as a way of dealing with her grief. The narrative, reflecting her inner turmoil, becomes correspondingly harder to follow: The story jumps quickly between past events, present events, and Jean Louise’s analysis of everything she is experiencing.
Jean Louise’s thoughts turn to her father and how highly she has always thought of him. The use of religious language here is particularly important. Jean Louise describes Atticus’ ethics as being based on New Testament teachings; she also makes it clear that the basis of her own ethics has been her father. Atticus is “the most potent moral force in her life.” Her father’s religion may be Christianity, but Jean Louise’s religion is one that deifies her father.
Jean Louise’s religious regard for her father is most clearly evidenced by her use of the question, “What would Atticus do?” Used as an ethical guide, the phrase is a parody of a Christian phrase, “What would Jesus do?” first popularized in the 1896 novel In His Steps. The parody would be a familiar one in the mid-1900s South, with its substitution of Atticus for Jesus clearly implying that Jean Louise regards her father as a kind of savior figure.
Ironically, even though Jean Louise has made her father the center of her own moral code, her memories of her father point to his desire to see her develop as an independent thinker. Atticus sent Jean Louise to a women’s college outside of the state and encouraged her to move to New York. Jean Louise has wanted so badly to follow in her father’s footsteps that for years she has been unable to become the independent thinker he longs for her to be. Although Jean Louise can’t yet see it, her disenchantment with her father is the beginning of her own intellectual coming of age.