Things began to get difficult for Scout. Atticus forbids Scout from fighting, but Cecil Jacobs makes her forget this when he announces to their class that Atticus defends black people. Scout denies it and later, asks Atticus if he “defends niggers.” Atticus admits that he does but cautions Scout to not talk that way, as it’s common. Scout points out that everyone at school talks that way, yet another bid to convince Atticus to not send her to school. He looks vaguely amused. Scout asks if all lawyers defend black people and points out that Cecil made it sound bad.
The casual tone with which Scout uses a racial slur suggests that she’s not necessarily using it in a malicious way—rather, she’s parroting language she’s heard others use. Atticus’s reproof of this language, however, suggests that he understands that speaking about black people in this way deprives them of dignity, while using a more appropriate term (Atticus uses “Negro” at various points in the novel, which suggests that this was proper at the time) shows respect.
With a sigh, Atticus says he’s defending a black man named Tom Robinson, and some believe that he shouldn’t defend Tom. Scout asks why he took the case then, and Atticus insists that he had to in order to hold his head up and maintain the moral high ground. He tells Scout that she might hear nasty things about it at school and encourages her to not fight. Scout asks if he’ll win the case. Atticus says he won’t, but that it’s important to fight anyway. He pulls Scout onto his lap and says that they’re “fighting friends.” She remembers this when she tells Cecil to take his taunt back the next day. He refuses. Scout punches him and then walks away, feeling as though she has to obey Atticus since he rarely asks for anything like this.
By being truthful with Scout about what’s going on and what’s going to happen—in other words, by not sheltering her—Atticus gives her the opportunity to grapple with adult ideas, and in doing so, helps her both grow and come to a better understanding of how her world works. When Atticus insists that he has to defend Tom in order to maintain the high ground, it indicates that for Atticus, helping others preserve their dignity is doing the right thing—even if he knows he won’t be successful.
Christmas is a mixed bag for Jem and Scout. On the plus side, Uncle Jack visits for a week. On the downside, they have to spend time with Aunt Alexandra and her grandson Francis (Aunt Alexandra’s husband is, in Scout’s opinion, not worth mentioning). Atticus insists they spend Christmas day at Finch’s Landing every year, despite Aunt Alexandra being a formidable woman and a gossip and Francis being boring.
Scout’s refusal to mention Aunt Alexandra’s husband reminds the reader that this is truly a child’s account, with all her opinions and thoughts added in. The reader should thus take what Scout says about things with a grain of salt, as it’s impossible for her to look at the world with anything other than her young perspective.
Uncle Jack arrives on the train with two long packages, pecks Atticus on the cheek, and shows Scout and Jem pictures of his cat. He insists she’s getting fat because she eats leftover body parts from the hospital, which Scout declares is “a damn story.” Atticus explains that Scout has decided cussing is fun and to ignore her, and Scout tells the reader that she believes that if Atticus realizes she learned the words at school, he won’t make her go. That night, she asks Uncle Jack to pass the damn ham. Later, he tells Scout that he doesn’t like language like that and asks Scout if she wants to be a lady. Scout isn’t interested in being a lady, but Uncle Jack insists that she actually is. The next morning Scout and Jem receive air rifles from Atticus, but he won’t let them take them to Finch’s Landing.
When even Scout’s beloved Uncle Jack tries to talk her into being ladylike, it reminds the reader that Scout doesn’t fit into people’s conceptions of what a young girl should be like. In this sense, if she were to think about it, she’s a lot like Boo—he, too, doesn’t fit into what people believe Maycomb’s residents should act like. Scout’s inability to make this leap, however, speaks to her youth and innocence, as does her use of rude language.
At Finch’s Landing, the children exchange gifts and Jem leaves Scout to entertain Francis. They discuss what they got for Christmas. Francis got clothes—just what he wanted—and doesn’t believe that Jem got a real chemistry set. Scout finds Francis to be extremely boring and a tattletale. He relays everything to Aunt Alexandra, who passes everything onto Atticus. Atticus only ever got sharp with Aunt Alexandra once when she took offense to Scout’s overalls, as she believed that Scout needed to be a lady and a ray of sunshine for Atticus. At dinner, Scout sits alone at the kids’ table, fuming, but Aunt Alexandra’s cooking almost makes up for it. After dinner, Scout goes outside with Francis, who announces that Alexandra is going to teach him to cook. Scout giggles that boys don’t cook.
This passage is extremely important, as it shows clearly that even though Scout suffers from other people’s prejudiced views surrounding gender roles, she holds questionable views of her own surrounding how boys and girls should act. The fact that Atticus stood up for Scout’s right to wear overalls, meanwhile, indicates that he’s far more concerned with preserving Scout’s individuality and sense of self than forcing her to behave a certain way.
Scout admits that she and Dill are engaged, which makes Francis laugh—according to him, Dill’s family passes him from relative to relative and declares that Scout’s lack of knowledge speaks to her general ignorance. He calls Atticus a “nigger-lover” who’s ruining the family. Scout chases him into the outside kitchen and waits for him to come out so she can jump him. When Aunt Alexandra appears, Francis whines that Scout cornered him. Francis kicks around the yard, gloating, and repeats his slur again. Scout punches him so hard she splits her knuckle to the bone. Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack separate them, and Francis bawls that Scout called him a “whore-lady.” Scout doesn’t deny it and Uncle Jack spanks her.
Note the difference here between Scout’s use of the n-word at the beginning of the chapter and Francis’s usage here. Whereas Scout was merely curious about hearing other people say the word, Francis clearly means it to land as an offensive slur. This suggests that he’s more developed than Scout, has a better understanding of how careful one must be with language like this, and knows how to weaponize it against those like Atticus who are sympathetic to black people, and against black people themselves. Francis betrays his prejudice and racism by using it here.
At home, Scout locks herself in her room and tries to keep Uncle Jack from coming in to talk to her. Scout accuses him of not understanding children and of not being fair and asks to tell her side. She explains that Atticus always listens to her and to Jem when they fight, and that Jack told her she could use bad words when provoked. She shares what Francis said and knows that Francis is in trouble by the look on Uncle Jack’s face. She begs him to let it go, since Atticus made her promise to not fight over this sort of thing. He agrees and then bandages her hand. Scout asks what a “whore-lady” is. Uncle Jack tells her a story about a silly Prime Minister, which Scout thinks makes no sense.
Scout’s query of what a “whore-lady” is betrays that she has no idea what she’s saying—she simply uses words because she hears them and picks up on the fact that they’re offensive. Again, while this doesn’t excuse her use of slurs, it does indicate that she’s generally not using them in a calculating and purposefully racist way, she’s only doing it for attention. Asking for Uncle Jack to be fair with her also shows that her sense of right and wrong is well-developed, even if she’s not fully aware of how her world functions.
Later, when Scout gets up for water, she stops in the hallway and listens to Uncle Jack tell Atticus that he’ll never have children after Scout’s dressing down earlier. He doesn’t betray his promise to Scout but tells Atticus about dodging Scout’s question of what a “whore-lady” was. Atticus tells Uncle Jack to tell children the truth. He muses that Scout will go through a lot in the next few months and needs to learn to not beat people up. Jack asks about the case. Atticus says that it’s a case of he-said, she-said, and the Ewells are involved—but John Taylor told him to take it, and he won’t be able to face his children if he doesn’t. He hopes that they come to him with questions and don’t catch Maycomb’s “usual disease.” Atticus sends Scout back to bed. Years later, she realizes that he wanted her to eavesdrop.
Scout’s reflection that Atticus wanted her to hear what he said shows that Atticus understands how difficult things are for Scout right now. He wants her to understand, however, that he must defend Tom Robinson in order abide by his own conscience and code of ethics. His mention of Maycomb’s “usual disease” is likely a reference to racism, which Atticus is clearly aware exists in force, even if it’s not really on Scout’s radar yet. His advice to Uncle Jack to answer children’s questions truthfully again shows that Atticus believes children are capable of hearing about adult concepts, even if they don’t totally understand them.