That afternoon Hank comes by to get Atticus for a “meeting” at the courthouse, and he solidifies his plans with Jean Louise for that night, despite Aunt Alexandra’s disapproval. Atticus leaves with Hank. Jean Louise goes into the living room and finds a pamphlet called “The Black Plague” among the papers beside her father’s chair. She reads it. It’s a racist tract about the supposed inferiority of blacks.
Before this chapter, almost everything has felt comfortable and familiar to Jean Louise, even as she is saddened by small changes to her hometown and family. When she finds this pamphlet, however, her painful experience of disillusionment really begins.
Jean Louise goes to throw the pamphlet in the trash, but Aunt Alexandra stops her. She says it makes some good points, and remains serious when Jean Louise tries to joke about the ridiculous statements it makes about scientific racial inferiority. Aunt Alexandra says it’s something that Atticus brought home from a Maycomb citizens’ council meeting. Atticus is on the board of directors, and Hank is “one of the staunchest members.” That’s the meeting they are at right now.
Jean Louise assumes that Atticus at least would find the contents of “The Black Plague” to be horrible and ridiculous—that his reaction to it would be to laugh with tears in his eyes—and so she is shocked when Aunt Alexandra parrots some of its racist statements. Citizens’ councils are historical realities of the South, and began forming in 1954 in Southern towns as opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.
Jean Louise leaves the house immediately, planning on going to the courthouse and figuring out what’s going on. She has read about “citizens’ councils” in the New York newspapers—how they are made up of the same people who were once in the Ku Klux Klan—“ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one hundred per cent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans—trash.”
Jean Louise cannot conceive of Atticus and Hank being a part of something she has heard so demonized in the news, and so she is determined to seek out the truth for herself. Lee’s description here is an ironic echo of Aunt Alexandra’s criticisms of Hank in Part 1, Chapter 3, and shows Jean Louise’s (and, one might argue, Lee’s) complicated love/hate relationship with the people of the South.
Jean Louise is surprised to see that the town is almost deserted, and then realizes that everyone is at the courthouse. She goes inside and up to the balcony, which is usually for “blacks only,” where she and Jem used to sit to watch Atticus when he was in court. Jean Louise looks down and sees not only the “trash” of Maycomb County, but also its most respectable men, including her father and Hank, both of them at a table set apart from the crowd.
This scene tragically mirrors the famous trial scene in Mockingbird, where Scout sits in the same place and secretly watches her father stand up for justice in the face of bigotry—but now Jean Louise secretly watches Atticus stand up on the side of bigotry. She doesn’t yet accept what’s going on.
At the same table is William Willoughby, a corrupt politician who essentially runs Maycomb County without holding any public office, taking advantage of others’ poverty to keep his power. Jean Louise knows that Atticus would normally never even speak to Willoughby, but now they are sitting at the same table. There are many other men Jean Louise recognizes from town as well.
Jean Louise’s disillusionment is not just with Atticus and Hank, but with all of Maycomb, as almost every man in town is there, both educated professionals and “white trash.”
The clock strikes two and Atticus stands up, tersely introducing the speaker for today, a man named Grady O’Hanlon. Mr. O’Hanlon rises and Jean Louise can immediately tell that he is an average citizen who quit his job and now works full time to fight against integration. Mr. O’Hanlon’s speech is full of racist slurs against blacks, warnings of “mongrelizing” the white race through interracial marriage, praise for the “Southern Way of Life,” and condemnation of the “communist” Supreme Court.
We have only had hints of the racial hatred simmering in the South during the time of the novel, but with Mr. O’Hanlon’s speech all the bitterness and spite is put into words. There is no real appeal to fact or reason in his speech, but only appeals to emotion, racial pride, and fear. Atticus speaking immediately before Mr. O’Hanlon links the two men in Jean Louise’s mind. That Atticus speaks tersely suggests that he does not agree entirely with O’Hanlon, but the fact that he introduces him at all is linkage enough for Jean Louise.
As she listens, Jean Louise is reminded of a scene twenty years earlier, when she sat in the same spot and watched Atticus defend a black man against a white woman on a rape charge. Then Atticus had said “equal rights for all, special privileges for none,” and these words now seem juxtaposed with Mr. O’Hanlon’s racist rant. At that trial Atticus had risked his career and had won an extremely rare acquittal for the black defendant. The white girl was only fourteen, but he had proven consent because she didn’t press statutory rape, and the defendant had only one arm. Atticus hadn’t known that Jean Louise and Jem had watched the entire court session.
This brief memory of a trial was expanded and became Mockingbird’s climactic action. Atticus’s words are the same, but one important fact is changed: in Mockingbird, Atticus’s client is convicted, and later killed. That is the disillusionment Scout experiences in the later book: watching an innocent man die because of his race. The disillusionment Jean Louise experiences here is more personal and complex, however, as she watches her father—the same man, the same hero, who would fight in a trial like that and win—now stand alongside white supremacists and defend systematic racism.
Mr. O’Hanlon’s speech keeps going, growing even more vicious and offensive, and Jean Louise starts sweating and panicking to see Atticus and Hank sitting to either side of him, seemingly condoning his words. Uncle Jack seems like the only man in Maycomb not present at this meeting. Jean Louise feels physically sick, and she stumbles out of the courthouse.
Most readers will share in Jean Louise’s disillusionment because we don’t just know Atticus from her brief memories of him in Watchman, but have also experienced the depths of his character through To Kill a Mockingbird. Thus Jean Louise’s painful experience is echoed on the meta-textual level—the level of the reader—as well.
Jean Louise steps outside and looks around at the town in the harsh light of the sun. Maycomb itself seems to say to her “there is no place for you here.” Jean Louise walks down the street and remembers her old neighbors, like Mrs. Dubose and Miss Rachel. She unconsciously walks to the location of her old home, and finds herself in front of the ice cream shop that has replaced it.
Jean Louise’s disillusionment with Atticus and Hank extends to Maycomb as well, and so to her core sense of home and belonging. She thinks of characters from her past—who will be developed in To Kill a Mockingbird—because now she can only feel at home in the past, not the present.
The man at the ice cream shop recognizes Jean Louise, but she doesn’t recognize him. She buys a scoop of vanilla and he promises her a free second helping if she can guess who he is. She goes around behind the shop and sits at a picnic table. What was once her back yard is now treeless and covered in gravel. Suddenly she feels nauseated, and is sure that Atticus, the man she trusted and admired most of anyone in the world, has betrayed her.
The ice cream shop represents the change and disillusionment Jean Louise experiences on this homecoming. It is the place she goes immediately after the courthouse, and it has literally replaced her old home just as this “new” Maycomb has replaced the town and this “new” Atticus has replaced the father she thought she knew. Jean Louise’s disillusionment and dismay at the loss of the town and father is so profound it makes her physically ill.