Jean Louise comes home to find Aunt Alexandra preparing lunch. Jean Louise suddenly remembers that her “Coffee” is today. Alexandra lists the guests she has invited, and they are all women younger or older than Jean Louise. Jean Louise asks about her old classmates, and then realizes that they all probably live out in the woods now. She tells Alexandra that she visited Calpurnia, and Alexandra is appalled.
Jean Louise is unique among her peers in moving to New York, as most of them, even the wealthy ones from “good” families who are attending the Coffee have not changed their station or setting in life. Lee sets up the Coffee to show how Jean Louise doesn’t fit in with anyone else in Maycomb either.
Aunt Alexandra tells Jean Louise that no one visits the “Negroes” anymore, because the NAACP has come down and convinced them to be “shiftless” and openly insolent to whites. Alexandra goes on about how much the Southern whites have helped the blacks ever “since the beginning of time,” but now all their progress has been undone by “uppity Yankee Negroes.” She says the blacks just bite the hand that feeds them, so no one wants to help them anymore.
Aunt Alexandra now spews the kind of false history and racist views that Jean Louise saw in “The Black Plague” and heard in Mr. O’Hanlon’s speech. It is especially shocking to hear such hate speech coming from a proper Southern lady like Alexandra, but it also shows how racism is inextricably linked to Old South life and how the Supreme court decision of 1954 helped bring that racism to the surface. Aunt Alexandra didn’t appear racist when there was nothing to threaten her sense of superiority. The idea that Southern whites have been helping blacks since the beginning of time would of course would be laughable if it were not so awful given the history of slavery.
Aunt Alexandra goes on about how arrogant and lazy black people are now, and says “keeping a nigger happy these days is like catering to a king.” Jean Louise silently leaves the room, wondering if there’s something wrong with her, because it seems so unlikely that everyone has suddenly changed as much as they seem to have. She wonders how Alexandra can say such things without her skin crawling.
The pain of disillusionment keeps hitting Jean Louise in different ways as she sees again and again that even people she loves can hold views she finds disgusting. Aunt Alexandra might have always believed things like this, but was too polite to say them out loud.
The guests arrive for the Coffee, and soon break into groups. “The Newlyweds” talk about their husbands, the “Diaper Set” discuss their children, and the “Light Brigade” talk about appliances. There are three “Perennial Hopefuls,” girls whom everyone likes but also pities because they never found a man. Jean Louise tries to talk to one of them, Sarah Finley. She remembers asking Sarah to play when they were ten, and Sarah saying Jean Louise was “too rough” to play with her.
This is another disjointed sort of scene, but an interesting one in that it shows just how much Jean Louise has changed from Maycomb life, to the point that she doesn’t fit in at all with any of her peers. If she had hoped to find home in Maycomb (outside of Atticus, Hank, Alexandra, and Calpurnia) those hopes are now dashed. In fact, the interaction suggests that Jean Louise never really fit in.
Jean Louise makes awkward small talk and then goes into the kitchen to help Aunt Alexandra. She goes back out and starts a conversation with Hester Sinclair, one of the “Light Brigade.” Hester wants to talk about Mr. Healy’s death, and says she hopes they charge the young man with murder, as she was hoping for a “good nigger trial.” Jean Louise realizes she has nothing to say to any of these women, even though she has known them all her life. She realizes she doesn’t fit in with the Maycomb women at all.
Jean Louise now feels even more lost, as she has always considered Maycomb her home, but now every aspect of it seems disconnected from her. She sees the same casual racism repeated by everyday citizens and her own peers, and realizes that it is not an isolated incident.
Aunt Alexandra joins the conversation about black people, commenting on how many times Zeebo has been married. Hester tells a joke about her black housekeeper, which Jean Louise finds not at all funny—she wonders if she has lost her sense of humor. Hester relates all the things her husband has told her, like that there might be a violent black uprising soon, and that the Civil Rights groups just appear peaceful to win sympathy from the North. She says they’re going about it like Gandhi and the “Communists,” who are “just like the Catholics.” Jean Louise tries to make light of all this, but Hester warns her that even in Maycomb County a white school was almost forced to let in black students.
Hester’s spiel sounds similar to Mr. O’Hanlon’s, as she goes on without any reference to fact or reason, condemning blacks, the Supreme Court, Communists, Gandhi(!), and Catholics all together in a medley of hatred. Jean Louise is still blaming herself, however, and so she wonders if she has lost her sense of humor. She isn’t yet willing to consider that such jokes were never funny, but were indicative of the systemic racism underlying daily life in Maycomb.
Jean Louise thinks to herself that she cannot even comprehend how Hester’s brain works, or what it would do when faced with real facts. Hester goes on with more of what her husband says, such as that “the NAACP’s dedicated to the overthrow of the South” and that blacks always want to marry whites and “mongrelize the race.” Jean Louise tries to argue reasonably about this last claim—that “mongrelizin’ the race” takes both races, and so it would be just as much the whites’ fault as the blacks. Hester bristles at this, and explains that it’s the white “trash” the NAACP is after.
Jean Louise is not close with Hester, so she tentatively reaches out and tries to debate her regarding her racist views (foreshadowing Jean Louise’s future arguments with Uncle Jack, Hank, and Atticus). Hester doesn’t respond with reason, of course, but immediately hides her racism behind classism, complaining (like Alexandra) about the “trash” who might be convinced to marry interracially.
Women at the Coffee ask Jean Louise “how’s New York?” and she doesn’t know how to answer. She thinks about the city and what it must be thinking of her now, and she has an imagined dialogue with it, assuring New York that “everything I learned about human decency I learned here” (in Maycomb). She tells New York that it hasn’t taught her anything but to be suspicious, and she hates its easy answers and lack of good manners. She assures it that until today she never heard a member of her family say the word “nigger,” that she never considered black people inferior growing up, and that she was raised equally by a white man and a black woman. What hurts her so much about Atticus is that he lived by this truth, and now has abandoned it.
This is an important passage, as Jean Louise basically argues with herself in trying to comprehend all the disillusionment she has experienced today. We get more information about her New York life, and how different that world (and side of Jean Louise herself) is from the world of Maycomb. Lee doesn’t let the North off the hook even while she criticizes the South, however. Even as Scout is disgusted with Maycomb, she feels that she is this way because of the morals that she learned in Maycomb. She still feels connected to the history of the town and her family, and so can’t accept the “easy answers” of New York and the North (which discount those things). At the same time, her thoughts sound a bit defensive, as if she is trying to convince herself of all this.
Jean Louise talks to one woman, Claudine McDowell, about Claudine’s brief, typical visit to New York. Claudine says she was glad to get back home to Maycomb, and though she had a good time she can’t understand why people would live in New York. Jean Louise says she got used to it eventually. Claudine comments on how horrifying it was to find a black person eating dinner right next to her there. Jean Louise says she doesn’t even notice anymore, and Claudine says she must be blind.
The North is certainly not free from racism, but at least there is less systematic segregation there, which adds to Jean Louise’s sense of “color blindness.” She realizes that she and the women of Maycomb cannot even begin to comprehend each others’ worlds.
Jean Louise wonders if she really is blind in a way. She thinks that she needs a “watchman” like the one Mr. Stone had preached about the day before. She needs a watchman to draw a line between right and wrong, and to tell everyone in Maycomb that “twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody.”
Jean Louise brings back the figure of the watchman in her suffering, as she now wishes someone had warned her about the disillusionment that was coming for her.