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While waiting for the verdict, Scout recalls the incident back in February when her father shot dead the mad dog, Tim Johnson, with a single gunshot. Now, when Atticus returns to hear the verdict along with the rest of the court, she feels somehow that it was like that earlier time, but with a crucial difference:
...it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing the gun was empty.
The earlier incident of the mad dog takes on an interesting symbolism when Scout recalls it at the climax of the trial. In the earlier incident, Atticus was able to eliminate the danger: he triumphed in an extremely tense, heightened situation. This time, however, he will be defeated. The linking of the two incidents in Scout's mind is understandable as in both cases she is watching her father taking on the odds, but this time he is deprived of ammunition. The mad-dog incident could also be taken as symbolic of the evil of racism which Atticus attempts to shoot down, as he did the dog. He is not able to prevail against the prejudiced majority however.
Scout also remembers how 'the mockingbirds were still' back on that cold day in February. This also reminds us of the novel's main themes as the mockingbird functions as a symbol of innocence. Now Tom, as an innocent victim of prejudice, is about to be convicted, and will eventually be killed, 'stilled' like the mockingbirds.
In Chapter 21, while Scout is waiting for the verdict, she thinks about something Jem had told her about the power of human concentration, and she tries to act on it. (Much of the novel focuses on young people learning to act on what they've been taught, and on forming community.)
She also thinks about the mockingbirds and how they fall silent in February. (The physical world sometimes echoes the emotional world in the book. Also, winter is a time when the world is dark and despair seems likely; that's the case now, when Atticus loses the case.)
She thinks of the carpenters stopping their hammering on Miss Maudie's new house, and the workmen building a new house after the old burns down is like Maycomb must rebuild into a new community after this travesty of justice.
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