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.
Aunt Alexandra has her missionary circle join her for tea one late summer afternoon. Scout joins them in her Sunday best because Jem is teaching Dill how to skinny dip. Scout admires the ladies and listens to Mrs. Grace Merriweather discuss a variety of matters from the Mruna people in Africa to her personally perceived disrupted racially harmony in Maycomb County. She blames Atticus for causing problems and dissatisfaction among the black serving class who she hates to see miserable. While she's continuing her diatribe about race relations, Atticus unexpectedly returns home. He tells Miss Maudie, Alexandra, Calpurnia, and Scout that Tom Robinson has been killed. He takes Calpurnia with him to the Robinson's house so that he may tell his wife Helen Robinson.
Aunt Alexandra invites her missionary circle over for a tea in late August. Scout is forced to stay behind and help her aunt host the gathering while the two boys go skinny dipping at the creek. Scout is wearing he Sunday's best dress with a petticoat and appropriate shoes. At first Scout helps Calpurnia bring in the tea and other refreshments; upon seeing her niece serve the tea so well, Alexandra invites Scout to join the circle. Scout gladly sits with her aunt's friends, admiring their scent and made-up faces. When asked what she'd like to be, Scout says she'd simply like to be a lady. After exchanging pleasantries with the women, Scout inquires into their afternoon study. Mrs. Grace Merriweather informs her about the poor Mrunas and the faith camp established in their region to help civilize them through Christianity.
The group of women then discuss the aftermath of the trial. Mrs. Merriweather, again, dominates the conversation by complaining about the black servants' dissatisfaction with the trial's outcome. She believes they will begin behaving if they white community tells them they are forgiven for what has occurred. Mrs. Merriweather is distraught because there's nothing more distracting than a sulky darky Just ruins your day to have one of em in your kitchen (265). She continues her diatribe by accusing Atticus of trying to cause trouble in the town with his commitment to Tom Robinson. Miss Maudie temporarily stops the hateful discussion by asking Mrs. Merriweather an inappropriately personal question about someone's ailment. Unfortunately, Grace continues her verbose monologue by drawing an accurate and honest comparison between southerners and northerners: Hypocrites, Mrs. Perkins, born hypocrites. At least we don't have that sin on our shoulders down here. People up there set em free, but you don't see em settin' at the table with em. At least we don't have the deceit to say to em yes you're as good as we are but stay away from us. Down here we just say you live your way and we'll live ours (267).
Atticus suddenly returns home, before his scheduled time, and calls both his sister and Calpurnia into the kitchen. Miss Maudie joins them just as Atticus requests Calpurnia's assistance at Tom's wife, Helen Robinson's house. He announces to the three ladies and his daughter that Tom is dead. He was shot trying to escape the work farm to which he was transferred and he is the one charged with giving Helen the terrible news. Atticus is extremely upset and tells the women We had such a good chance. I told him what I thought, but I couldn't in truth say that we had more than a good chance. I guess Tom was tired of white men's chances and preferred to take his own(269). He and Calpurnia leave while Scout, Miss Maudie, and Aunt Alexandra return to the missionary circle, but not before replacing their saddened faces with hostess smiles
Dill has returned home to Meridian, but not without telling Scout what happened the day of Tom's death. He and Jem accompanied Atticus to Helen's house where they watched her collapse before Atticus could break the news to her. The news reports the incident for a couple of days, but Mr. Underwood devotes a passionate editorial proclaiming Tom's death a sin. Finally Scout realizes that race and hatred were the two major factors in the Ewell Robinson incident.
September has replaced August and the summer is over. Dill has returned to Meridian for the school year once again leaving Scout and Jem with each other. They are on the back porch when Scout sees a roly-poly bug near her bed. She is about to kill it when Jem tells her not to do it, but rather to place it on the back steps which she dutifully does without too much of an argument. She's curious to know his motives for keeping the bug alive. He tells her that it didn't do anything to warrant being killed. Scout knows this new attitude towards insects is part of his ongoing change, but notices he is becoming more like a girl than she is. Her thoughts turn to Dill, who told her that he and Jem accompanied Calpurnia and Atticus to Helen's house the day they went swimming. Atticus picked them up on the side of the road as they were walking home from the creek. Atticus was reticent to allow them to g o to Helen's house, but Jem had convinced made a convincing argument. As soon as she invites Atticus to take a seat, Helen collapses on the dirt as if a giant foot stepped on her. She knew the reason for Atticus' visit before he could tell her that her husband, Tom, was dead. The news of Tom's death occupies Maycomb's attention for about two days, but mostly everyone agrees that it is typical for a black man to do something as irrational as trying to escape from a prison farm. Mr. Underwood expresses his anger at the senseless killing of a cripple and likens it to the killing of songbirds and children. Scout is slow to understand the meaning behind Mr. Underwood's editorial; however, she realizes in the end that in the secret court of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed rape (276).
In the previous section, the reader sees Jem continuing to develop into a young adult through his experience with the Tom Robinson's trial and the law in general. In this section, Scout's development into adulthood is marked by her suddenly improved relationship with Aunt Alexandra. Surprisingly, the missionary tea party provides an opportunity for Scout to portray the type of lady her Aunt has been fighting for her to be since she moved in with Atticus' family. Scout is not only wearing a dress and petticoat, but she is also admiring the well appointed ladies who are in attendance. This presents a drastic change from Scout's previous incarnation as a rough, petulant tomboy who was more willing to fisticuffs than act like a lady. Unfortunately, Lee does not adequately explain Scout's sudden desire to be just a lady; yet, one can take comfort in the fact that Scout is still capable of reverting to her old tricks as demonstrated by her attempt to assassinate a roly poly bug. Lee is clearly stating that Scout, thankfully, has a long way to go before fully entering her womanhood.
The scene with Aunt Alexandra's missionary circle serves two other purposes. The first and most basic is comic relief. After the trial's intensity and the emotional rollercoaster ride leading to the trial, the ladies of Maycomb offer the reader a brilliant performance in Lee's satirical treatment of southern God fearing belles. Secondly, beneath the attractive, sweet smelling surface of Maycomb's darlings is a rancid secret of hypocrisy. The women are gathered in the spirit of the lord; however, they demonstrate the opposite ofhis teachings to love they brother and sister unconditionally. They also expose a dangerous level of arrogance and self absorption. Mrs. Grace Merriweather, who dominates the missionary circle, is the epitome of self righteousness and pride. She declares to her tea companions that it is the blacks who need to ask for forgiveness from the whites for what they did. She never elaborates on what transgression the black community committed against the white community; however, on can safely assume that she is holding the black population in Maycomb responsible for alleged a.k.a. false rape charges pressed by Mayella Ewell. Following this opening is a long diatribe about how miserable darkies are unbearable and they really ouht to learn to stop complaining about their plight. At least they are not in the north where white people only pretend to be their allies.
This last statement regarding the hypocrisy of the north is particularly note worthy and amusing because at the beginning of the chapter, Mrs. Merriweather is discussing the plight of an African tribe that her church is trying to convert. Her racism has impacted her reasoning skills to such an extent that she cannot identify the contradictions of her own sympathies. She will not sympathize with a community the oppression of whom is partly her responsibility; however, she has compassion for a group far removed from her own social sphere and experience. Lee is emphasizing the contradictions and hypocrisy inherent to racist ideology through this group of women who are a reflection of Maycomb County as a whole. The veneer of community is attractive, but beneath the beauty lies its true ugliness. Its ironic that Scout is sitting with these women who are supposed to represent the ideal of beauty and womanhood, yet they are showing her that being a lady is not necessarily a positive experience and often involves putting up a front. Lee demonstrates this through Aunt Alexandra and Miss Maudie who must return to the party and continue playing the brilliant hosts after learning that Tom Robinson has been killed. Scout realizes another crucial lesson about being a lady, particularly a white lady, when she learns about Tom: womanhood can become a dangerous weapon if and when wielded by the wrong person with the wrong intentions. Mayella Ewell used her sex as a weapon that indirectly killed one of the few innocents in the novel.