To Kill a Mockingbird Study Guide

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about Atticus, a lawyer, and his children, Jem and Scout, living in Alabama. Jem and Scout are infatuated with a spooky neighbor, "Boo" Radley, Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Tom is found guilty by a racist jury and is killed while trying to escape from prison. Bob Ewell, the winner of the case, attacks Jem and Scout to exact revenge but Boo saves them and kills Bob.

Chapter 23 Summary

Brief Summary

Atticus is not nearly as concerned about Bob Ewell as his family is. He believes that Bob simply needed to get his revenge for being publicly humiliated in court. Jem and Atticus have a serious discussion about the case, law, juries, and the verdict. Jem must be reminded that Tom never had access to a fair and just trial. The odds of such were stacked against him as soon as he was born. Although Atticus realizes that racism is the result of an interference with reason and compassion, he does know that is has lasting effects and he is afraid his children will pay for those consequences.

Detailed Summary

Atticus is not worried about Bob Ewell's threats. He tells Jem and Scout that Ewell simply wanted revenge on Atticus for publicly being made a fool; now that has expelled his anger by spitting on his nemesis in public, Atticus does not expect any more trouble from him. However, the children are so concerned about the tension between Bob Ewell and Atticus escalating that they lose their appetites and begin sulking around town. As Tom Robinson awaits the news on his appeal for a new trial, he is transferred to another prison seventy miles away from his family. Atticus is confident that Tom will receive a pardon on his appeal. Scout inquires into Tom's fate should he lose his appeal and learns that he will be electrocuted because rape is a capital offense in Alabama.

Jem and Atticus discuss the fairness of Tom's punishment as well as the role of the jury in legal matters. Jem believes that jury could have been more lenient with Tom. Atticus reminds him that leniency does not exist for a black man in America. Atticus also reminds him about the difficulty of changing the laws so that only judges have the power to deciding penalties for convicted criminals. Jem reiterates his belief that the jury was wrong to convict Tom on the evidence presented to them; however, he doesn't realize that race was and is always the deciding factor in matters between black and white men: So far nothing has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn't go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads they couldn't be fair of they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those are the facts of life (252). Atticus fears the children may possibly be forced to face the consequences of the white man's unjust treatment of black men.

The children learn that Mr. Walter Cunningham wanted to acquit Tom, but, unfortunately, he was outnumbered. Both Jem and Scout are extremely surprised. Scout announces that she plans to invite Walter home for dinner; however, Aunt Alexandra tells her the Cunninghams aren't our kind of folks (255). She considers the Cunninghams to be poor trash and wants neither Jem nor Scout to associate with them. Jem stops Scout from arguing with their aunt by bringing her into his room. While in his bedroom, Jem shows Scout his barely visible chest hair before discussing the conclusions he's drawn as a result of enduring the trial. Jem realizes that Maycomb County has four social groups: the ordinary kind like themselves and their neighbors, the people who live in the woods and work the land like the Cunninghams, the extremely impoverished like the Ewells, and finally the Negroes. Each groups despises the other (i.e. their aunt despises the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams hate the Ewells, and the Ewells hate black people. He realizes that the main distinction between the Finches, the Cunninghams, the Ewells, and blacks is education. Scout counters his theory with not only the simplest, but also the most acute: Naw, Jem, I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks (258). The one issue Jem feels certain about is that Boo Radley chooses to stay in the house rather than face the ugliness of the world as they have.

Chapter 23 Analysis

In this chapter, the reader is faced with what can be considered a far too pat conclusion to the anticlimactic ending of the Maycomb's most watched trial. Bob Ewell, a man known for his instability and volatile behavior, has threatened Atticus; however, Atticus believes Bob's threats to be the childish musings of a humiliated man. Uncharacteristically, he does not permit his analysis to go any deeper than surface level. He expects his children, who stand to lose much if Bob Ewell follows through on his threats, to sympathize with their antagonist. The reader can even interpret Atticus' easy dismissal of Bob Ewell's anger as arrogance and elitism. He tells them that all the man needed was to indiscriminately take his revenge out on somebody. It is almost as if Atticus is claiming that Bob Ewell does not have a legitimate claim to anger. Despite his unscrupulousness and the intentional harm he caused many people in his life, Ewell, like any other human being, also has complex history some of which the reader can be sure was not all pleasant.

This is one of the major themes of the novel and is explored from nearly all possible angles. The adults in the story, at least Atticus and Miss Maudie, are always reminding the children to walk in someone else's shoes for a day before passing judgment on him. Yet, Atticus passes judgment on the Ewells several times with the first being Scout's first day at school. He tells her that the Ewells live like animals and do not know the meaning of an honest day's work. His statements may be true, but they are rooted in the Maycomb sociocultural codes of hierarchy. Here it is the same thing; their lifestyle renders them harmeless. Lee intentionally presents the reader with a somewhat contradictory side of Atticus to not only make his character more credible, but to also emphasize that the world in which he is living and which he relfects is a most human world filled with flaws and contradictions.

Then there is the discussion of the trial between Jem and Atticus. Jem has an impressive grasp of jurisprudence for someone who has only just attended his first trial. However, his understanding of the law is merely at a theoretical level. Although he understands that the hearts of men can and do interfere with justice, he cannot remember that the hearts of many of Maycomb's men are filled with racial hatred. His desire to remain attached to the innocent world from which he is slowly moving away is partly responsible for this. As his father tells him, he is a reasonable person who understands the basic concept of fairness; therefore, he cannot grasp the absurdity of racism and the poor choices it leads men to make. In some ways, Jem is still as nave as a child.

Yet, at the end of the chapter, both he and Scout make rather astute and adult observations regarding their home town and its inhabitants. Jem finally recognizes that the social hierarchy dominating Maycomb is comprised of four main groups, each compounding the hatred of the other and passing down the ladder and each separated by a distinguishable level of education. Essentially everyone is hated and hates someone. Scout develops Jem's observation by reminding him that the social hierarchy of which he speaks is simply a human attribute that is not particular to any group or town. Folks are just folks; one must either 1) accept this fact as well as find a way of living with their fellow man's flaws such as Dolphus and Boo Radley do or 2) can attempt to fight against the grain and suffer.

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