In Chapter 20 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, what did Dolphus Raymond mean when he said, "You little folks won't tell on me now, will you? . . . It'd ruin my reputation if you did."
The theme of systemic racism runs through Harper Lee's narrative in her coming-of-age novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee's fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, was a product of her own upbringing in the American South, where institutionalized segregation was a way of life and her characters are reflections of the author's observations. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, as the novel's young narrator, Scout, relates stories of her father's wisdom and courage. Atticus Finch is a small-town lawyer whose clients sometimes have no choice but to pay their legal bills in livestock. Atticus is the moral center of To Kill a Mockingbird. His defense of an African American man accused of raping a white woman provides numerous opportunities for Lee to emphasize the lawyer's upright moral standing in a sea of ignorance and virulent racism.
Atticus is not the only white citizen of Maycomb who refuses to countenance the racial attitudes that prevail among most of the town's population. Another such citizen is Dolphus Raymond, viewed for much of the novel as a drunk who socializes exclusively with Maycomb's African American community. In chapter sixteen of the novel, Scout relates the following tale of one typical morning in Maycomb:
Mr. Dolphus Raymond lurched by on his thoroughbred. “Don’t see how he stays in the saddle,” murmured Jem. “How c’n you stand to get drunk ‘fore eight in the morning?”
Later in chapter sixteen, the subject of Dolphus Raymond and his propensity for consuming alcohol again becomes a topic of conversation among the children when Dill asks Jem about this peculiar adult's habits:
“Why’s he sittin‘ with the colored folks?” “Always does. He likes ‘em better’n he likes us, I reckon. Lives by himself way down near the county line. He’s got a colored woman and all sorts of mixed chillun. Show you some of ’em if we see ‘em.”
It is well-established that Dolphus Raymond is a town drunk who prefers the company of blacks to whites. He is a social outcast among Maycomb's predominantly white population—a risky proposition in this virulently racist town. It is in Chapter 20 when Dill, physically upset by the gross miscarriage of justice he is witnessing in the rape trial of Tom Robinson, reluctantly accepts an offer from Dolphus to drink from the bottle of liquid the latter keeps in a brown paper bag:
Dill released the straws and grinned. “Scout, it’s nothing but Coca-Cola.” Mr. Raymond sat up against the tree-trunk. He had been lying on the grass. “You little folks won’t tell on me now, will you? It’d ruin my reputation if you did.”
For the past several chapters, Dolphus Raymond has been depicted as an alcoholic whose lack of judgment results in his association with blacks. Indeed, Dolphus is known to have a black woman with whom he has conceived children. With the revelation that his bottle is not filled with whiskey but rather, Coca-Cola, his ruse is up, at least with respect to the Finch children and Dill. When Dolphus remarks that his reputation would be ruined if word got out that he is not really a drunk, he is being ironic. He is protective of a reputation that most ordinary people would eschew, the alcoholic. He plays the drunk, however, so that he can freely associate with the African American community. Whites do not bother him because they have written him off as a drunk. His presumed alcoholism is the cover he needs to associate with blacks.
Dolphus Raymond is actually proud of his reputation as being one of Maycomb's leading eccentrics. Rumor has it that the paper bag he carries with a bottle inside actually disguises the whiskey that he drinks, and Dolphus does nothing to discourage folks' opinions about him. He actually weaves about deliberately to further strenghthen the validity of the rumor. However, when he meets up with Dill and Scout outside the courthouse, he decides to share his little secret with his innocent young friends. When Dolphus offers Dill a sip from the bottle to "settle your stomach," he seems to take "delight in corrupting a child." Scout cautions him.
"Dill, you watch out now," I warned.
But Dill quickly discovered the real truth.
Dill released the straws and grinned. "Scout, it's nothing but Coca-Cola."
Dolphus made them promise not to reveal his secret, and when Scout asked him why he performed this "sinful" act to create a less-than-honest impression, Dolphus answered that
"I try to give 'em a reason, you see... they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that's the way I want to live."