To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Later, Atticus says later that he wishes Mr. Ewell wouldn’t chew tobacco, while Miss Stephanie takes it upon herself to dramatically tell the story of Mr. Ewell spitting in Atticus’s face. Jem and Scout don’t think it’s entertaining—they’re terrified. They try several tactics to try to get Atticus to carry a gun, but it takes a while for Atticus to realize how scared they are. One evening, Atticus encourages Jem to think of how Mr. Ewell feels. He says that he destroyed Mr. Ewell’s credibility at the trial and if Mr. Ewell spitting in his face saved Mayella a beating, he’s fine with it. Aunt Alexandra isn’t so sure that they’re in the clear, but Jem and Scout feel better.
Some of the reason that Scout and Jem are so afraid is because, to a degree, they still believe that courage and revenge happen physically. Spitting in Atticus’s face is, in their understanding, not enough to make Mr. Ewell okay with what happened. Atticus isn’t afraid because he understands that courage doesn’t have to be physical—it can be simply standing up to someone and refusing to engage or retaliate.
Themes
Courage Theme Icon
A few weeks later, Atticus discuss Tom’s case with Scout and Jem. He explains that Tom is at a prison farm 70 miles away, and he and Jem argue over whether rape should be a capital offense. Atticus insists he’s fine with that, but he doesn’t believe men should be sentenced to death on circumstantial evidence rather than eyewitness testimony. Jem stubbornly says that the jury is the problem, but Atticus argues that in his opinion, only judges should be able to set the penalty in capital cases. He says that the law won’t change for years, if ever, and points out that the men on the jury are reasonable people, but they lose their heads when confronted with something like Tom’s case—in this world, a white man will always win against a black man.
Atticus essentially proposes here that racism, not the courts or the law, is the problem. He suggests that when men have to make a decision like Tom’s jury did, particularly when they are influenced by a group, they will fall back on their worst instincts and continue to behave in prejudiced and racist ways. His ability to see that the men on the jury are still reasonable people comes from his desire to see good in everybody, since he recognizes that most people contain elements that are both good and bad.
Themes
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Prejudice Theme Icon
Jem maintains his position, but Atticus replies vehemently that he should always remember that a white man who cheats a black man is trash. He declares that one day, they’re going to pay for this mistreatment. Jem asks why nobody like Miss Maudie ever sits on juries. Atticus points out that in Alabama, women can’t serve, though he suggests that’s not such a bad thing. Then, Atticus says that Maycomb’s citizens are disinterested and afraid. Serving on a jury to decide a peer’s fate could lose someone business—even if, in theory, a jury vote is secret. He says that men don’t like to declare themselves and Jem mutters that Tom’s jury decided quickly.
Atticus takes the long view here and suggests that it’s wrong to believe things will never change—eventually, white people won’t be able to get away with mistreating black people poorly, though those that try will still be immoral and wrong. When he points out that it might not be a bad thing that women can’t serve on juries, it suggests that even Atticus may harbor some sexist sentiments—not even he is an entirely flawless person.
Themes
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Prejudice Theme Icon
Atticus says quietly that that’s not true—it took much longer than usual, and a Cunningham wanted to acquit Tom. Jem yelps, but Atticus says that the Cunninghams are loyal once you earn their loyalty. He says that if they’d had two Cunninghams, the jury would’ve been hung. Jem asks how Atticus could risk putting someone on the jury who wanted to kill him, but Atticus insists there’s little risk—a man who’s a little uncertain is a good bet. Scout wants to know this Cunningham’s relationship to Mr. Cunningham. Atticus says they’re double first cousins, which Scout can’t make sense of.
Double cousins are, importantly, a real thing—they are the children of sisters who each marry a brother from another family. For the reader, the fact that these kinds of relationships exist in the Cunningham family point again to how close-knit the community is and how little new blood there is, which forms the basis for the tight and insular community that Scout recognizes.
Themes
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon
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Scout feels good about defending Walter at school and declares that she’s going to invite Walter for dinner sometime. Aunt Alexandra puts her foot down. Scout is confused and says that the Cunninghams are good people, but Aunt Alexandra insists that they’re not their kind of people—and Finch women aren’t interested in them anyway. Scout presses further, but Aunt Alexandra maintains that Scout and Walter can’t be friends because Walter is trash and Scout is already enough of a problem. Jem catches Scout before she can do anything and leads her to his bedroom. She cries and accepts his proffered Tootsie Roll.
Aunt Alexandra calling Walter trash is especially difficult for Scout, as she’s only ever heard Atticus describe the Ewells that way. Especially now that Scout knows that a Cunningham wanted to acquit Tom, she understands that there’s a world of difference between trash as Atticus defines it and just being from a poor farming family. Aunt Alexandra betrays here that she’s extremely classist and thinks lowly of poor, uneducated people like the Cunninghams, no matter how kind they may be.
Themes
Prejudice Theme Icon
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon
Scout studies Jem, who’s getting taller and leaner. He shows her hair growing on his chest, which Scout can’t see but compliments anyway. He tells Scout to not let Aunt Alexandra get on her nerves and asks if Scout would start sewing. Scout insists that she’s upset that Aunt Alexandra called Walter trash, not about being a lady. Jem proposes that there are four kinds of people in Maycomb County: normal people like them and the neighbors, people like the Cunninghams, ones like the Ewells, and black people. Each group hates the person who comes next on the list. Scout asks why Tom’s jury of Cunningham-like people didn’t acquit Tom to spite the Ewells, but Jem waves this away.
Jem is coming from an understandable place in his attempt to organize Maycomb County’s residents into categories, since this is how people in town likely make sense of themselves in relation to others. However, the way he groups people nevertheless betrays that he still holds troubling ideas of his own and isn’t entirely sold on the idea that all people are the same inside—what separates them is skin color, education, money, and relationships. This becomes especially apparent when he dismisses Scout , since her question actually makes perfect sense given his divisions.
Themes
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Prejudice Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon
Jem says that he’s seen Atticus enjoy fiddle music on the radio, but somehow, they’re still different from the Cunninghams. Atticus once said that Aunt Alexandra is so concerned about the family because they have background but no money. Scout insists that the focus on being an old family is silly, but Jem insists that it has to do with how long a family has been literate. Scout points out that nobody is born knowing things and notes that Walter is smart, he just misses school to help on the farm. She thinks that people are just people. Looking angry, Jem says he used to think that, but he can’t understand why people can’t get along if they’re the same. He understands now that Boo Radley might stay inside because he wants to.
Throughout the novel, liking fiddle music is code for being poor and provincial. As Jem tries to figure all of this out, Scout begins to take on the role that Dill did outside the courthouse when she suggests that people are just people. This shows that at this point, she’s still a child, and after what she learned during the trial she understands that there’s not much that innately divides groups of people. Rather, it’s power and privilege that do that.
Themes
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Prejudice Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon