How are Jem and Scout affected by their father's defense of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jem and Scout have to put up with both children and adults telling them how horrible their father is for defending Tom Robinson. Scout gets in fights. She yells at Cecil Jacobs, then draws blood defending her father to cousin Francis at Christmas. The pressure from the community is so bad that even an elderly neighbor named Mrs. Dubose says horrible things to the kids about their father. As a result, Jem goes berserk. Scout explains how it has affected Jem to the point of chopping off the tops of Mrs. Dubose's camellia bushes:

"Jem had probably stood as much guff about Atticus lawing for ni**ers as had I, and I took it for granted that he kept his temper—he had a naturally tranquil disposition and a slow fuse. At the time, however, I thought the only explanation for what he did was that for a few minutes he simply went mad" (102).

The above passage is a kind of prologue to the story of Jem's camellia-chopping day. He grabs Scout's new baton that he has just bought her and takes out all his frustration and anger on the bushes. He has to face Mrs. Dubose afterwards, as Atticus orders, but he took out her bushes anyway, which shows just how much stress he is under during this time. Atticus shows that he understands that the kids have been and will be under pressure because of him defending Tom Robinson as follows:

"Scout. . . when summer comes you'll have to keep your head about far worse things. . . It's not fair for you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down—well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you'll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn't let you down" (104).

Atticus tries to prepare them for more to come the following summer, and the kids seem to keep themselves together in the meantime. On the day of the trial, though, Scout overhears that Atticus was appointed to defend Tom and she believes that would have changed her whole year had she known:

"This was news, news that put a different light on things: Atticus had to, whether he wanted to or not. I thought it odd that he hadn't said anything to us about it—we could have used it many times in defending him and ourselves. . . But did that explain the town's attitude? The court appointed Atticus to defend him. Atticus aimed to defend him. That's what they didn't like about it. It was confusing" (163).

Scout becomes confused by the whole ordeal. It's difficult because she doesn't understand why she and her family have to be persecuted for standing up for what is right. Jem, on the other hand, really takes it hard afterwards. He really gets involved in the trial and believes that his father will win the case for Tom Robinson—that is, until the conviction is passed by the jury: then he cries. He's moody for weeks and doesn't even want to discuss it with Scout ever again. Fortunately, Jem and Scout come out of it all alright, and the pressure from the community settles down by the time they go back to school in the fall.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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