One Sunday late in August, Jem and Dill swim naked at Barker’s Eddy, leaving Scout with Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra’s missionary circle. She sits in the kitchen and listens to Mrs. Grace Merriweather report on the Mruna people, who apparently have earworms, no family, and get drunk on chewed-up tree bark. Aunt Alexandra asked that Scout join them for refreshments, but Scout decides to stay in the kitchen when she realizes that if she spills on her Sunday dress, Calpurnia will have to wash it again. Scout offers to help, so Calpurnia allows her to carry in the coffee pot. Aunt Alexandra again asks Scout to stay, and Scout feels apprehensive as she sits next to Miss Maudie.
Scout’s realization that if she spills on her dress, Calpurnia will have to wash it represents another turning point in maturity for Scout, as it shows that she now cares about Calpurnia enough to do whatever she can to save her from having to perform extra work. In this sense, Scout is beginning to abandon some of her prejudice and treat Calpurnia with respect and care.
Miss Maudie asks Scout where her pants are and Scout says they’re under her dress, not meaning to joke. Miss Maudie doesn’t laugh like the other ladies, and Miss Stephanie teases Scout about wanting to grow up to be a lawyer. Miss Maudie touches Scout’s hand gently and grips it tightly when Miss Stephanie says that Scout isn’t girly enough. To be polite, Scout asks Mrs. Merriweather what they studied. Mrs. Merriweather goes on about the Mruna people and the missionary J. Grimes Everett, who is the only one who understands the poverty and the immorality of the Mrunas.
Miss Maudie is giving Scout a valuable lesson here in how to deal with rude people like Miss Stephanie—just as Atticus encouraged her to do when it came to defending her honor via fighting, it’s better and more courageous in this case to simply ignore someone like Miss Stephanie and change the subject. Scout’s willingness to sit and listen also shows that she’s beginning to grow up, as does her ability to humor Mrs. Merriweather.
Mrs. Merriweather then goes on to say that she hates when black people sulk, as it ruins her day. She insists that Helen Robinson needs to get over it and the white residents of Maycomb need to forgive the black residents so the black residents will stop being so upset. Another woman insists that they can educate and evangelize to black people, but it’s no use. Mrs. Merriweather agrees and says that some people think they were doing the right thing a while ago, but all they did was stir up the black people. Scout isn’t paying attention, but Mrs. Merriweather’s comment angers Miss Maudie. Aunt Alexandra changes the subject and gives Miss Maudie a look of thanks. Scout doesn’t get it—she thinks that men aren’t catty like women are.
Mrs. Merriweather betrays her racism here when she goes on about how she hates it when black people in her hometown sulk, while also expressing condescending pity toward tribes in Africa. In both cases, Mrs. Merriweather cannot accept black people as they are, or accept the fact that those in Maycomb have every right to be upset by what transpired in the courtroom. Her insult of Atticus also indicates that she doesn’t think white people in Maycomb should ever offer their black neighbors genuine help or respect.
Mrs. Merriweather speaks poorly of desegregation efforts as Scout thinks that if she were the Governor of Alabama, she’d let Tom go. She remembers hearing Calpurnia talking the other day about how Tom gave up hope when he went to jail, but he doesn’t understand that things could still change. Just then, Atticus gets home early. His face is white, and he asks to speak to Aunt Alexandra in the kitchen. Scout and Miss Maudie follow, and he explains that Tom is dead: he tried to climb over a fence in prison and the guards shot him. He wants Calpurnia to accompany him to tell Helen. Atticus says that Tom had a chance, but he must’ve decided to stop hoping for white men’s chances.
Though Atticus can see that Tom had a chance, he understands that Tom has spent his life at the mercy of white men—and in the last year, found his life turned upside down and put in danger because a white man decided to punish him when he did nothing wrong. Except for Atticus’s attempt to give Tom a fair trial, Tom had no reason to continue to trust that the white people in charge of his life were going to follow through and do the right thing.
Aunt Alexandra sits down, and Miss Maudie breathes heavily. Wearily, Aunt Alexandra says that she doesn’t always approve of Atticus, but she wants to know what else “they” want from him. She says that Maycomb is letting him do what they’re too afraid to do. Miss Maudie points out that the people who believe black people deserve a fair trial are trusting Atticus to do the right thing. Scout starts shaking. Miss Maudie tells her to stop and insists they need to return to the ladies. They gather themselves and return to the living room. Scout watches Aunt Alexandra and Miss Maudie serve. She picks up a plate of cookies, offers one to Mrs. Merriweather, and thinks that if Aunt Alexandra can be a lady right now, she can too.
Now, Scout begins to understand that being a lady as Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra define it has to do with putting on a smile and carrying on, rather than letting this tragedy rock the missionary circle and watching it descend into even more racist rhetoric. This continues to support Atticus’s assertion that courage is standing up tall and carrying on, even if one knows they won’t be successful. In this case, there’s no real way for Scout to win, as there’s nothing she can do to help Tom.