How would you explain the irony in the missionary circle with the "squalid lives of the Mrunas" in chapter 24 of To Kill a Mockingbird?
Irony is “the technique of indicating an intention or attitude opposed to what is actually stated” (“enotes Guide to Literary Terms). In this case, the irony is that the women in the Missionary Circle care more about the people in Africa than they do the people in their own town. There are people suffering in Africa, but there are people suffering much closer and they are causing that suffering, ironically, the suffering they do not care about.
There is rampant racism in Maycomb. It is a part of life, and everyone accepts it. In fact, most consider it morally correct. It is morally wrong to not treat others, such as African-Americans, as inferior. This is why the Missionary Circle is so hypocritical. They talk about the poor Mrunas in Africa and how sorry they feel about them, while they snub their noses at African-Americans at home. They do not really care about the Mrunas. They just like to look down on them.
Scout is a young girl, just learning how the world works. One of the biggest shocks is how unfair racism is. She was raised to respect people. Her father cared about everyone, and taught her to do the same. Aunt Alexandra, on the other hand, believed that people like the Finches were superior because of the color of their skin and their family status.
The Missionary Circle ladies try to make themselves feel better by talking about how terrible the conditions are in Africa. They even go so far as to tell Scout that she should be grateful that she doesn’t have to put up with them.
When Mrs. Merriweather shook her head, her black curls jiggled. “Jean Louise,” she said, “you are a fortunate girl. You live in a Christian home with Christian folks in a Christian town. Out there in J. Grimes Everett’s land there’s nothing but sin and squalor.” (Ch. 24)
Scout is confused. She doesn’t understand why they keep going on and on about Africa. Then the conversation switches to Maycomb.
Thing that church ought to do is help her lead a Christian life for those children from here on out. Some of the men ought to go out there and tell that preacher to encourage her.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Merriweather,” I interrupted, “are you all talking about Mayella Ewell?”
“May—? No, child. That darky’s wife. Tom’s wife, Tom—”
“Robinson, ma’am.” (Ch. 24)
The irony here is that Scout assumes that the they are talking about Mayella because she is the one who is actually living in squalor, but the ladies are worried about Helen Robinson. This is racism again. The Robinsons are a respectable, church-going, nuclear family. The Ewells are a mess. They are the ones who could really use the missionary intervention. The Robinsons would never be in the position they are in, having lost their husband and father, if it had not been for the Ewells deprived lifestyle. The Robinsons needs support, not criticism.
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