What is Calpurnia's dilemma in Chapter 10 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

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In Chapter 10 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout and Jem notice a dog named Old Tim Johnson coming down the road that runs along the Radley Place, and he looks very sick. The children return home to tell Calpurnia what they saw, and she deduces...

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In Chapter 10 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout and Jem notice a dog named Old Tim Johnson coming down the road that runs along the Radley Place, and he looks very sick. The children return home to tell Calpurnia what they saw, and she deduces that the dog might be rabid. After seeing the dog for herself, she is faced with warning the neighborhood and protecting the children; both tasks place her in dilemmas, meaning situations in which one must make difficult choices (Merriam-Webster).

After talking on the phone with Atticus and getting his instructions, Calpurnia very easily speaks with the telephone operator and has her phone the neighbors on the street to warn them the dog is coming. The most challenging task is trying to inform the Radleys, and the Radley Place will be the first house the dog passes once he reaches the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the Radleys don't own a phone, don't speak with other people, and never leave their house, realities that place Calpurnia in a position to make a difficult choice. Calpurnia could decide to try and warn them in person, or she could decide to assume they will remain indoors and that she herself could stay where it is safe, inside the Finches' home. Both of these choices represent a dilemma. Calpurnia, being a brave person, decides to run out to the Radley Place, bang on the front door and shout, "Mr. Nathan, Mr. Arthur, mad dog's comin'! Mad dog's comin'!" (Ch. 10). Her efforts seem to fail since she receives no reply, and she must return back to the Finches' home.

Her task of keeping the Finch children protected is a little easier than warning the Radleys but also places her in a dilemma. Though it is easy to keep the children inside of the house and away from the dog, she is faced with the decision of protecting them from the terrible vision of seeing the dog being shot or of allowing them to witness one of the brutalities of reality. Calpurnia arrives back at the Finches' porch just as Sheriff Heck Tate and Atticus drive up; Sheriff Tate has his riffle. Atticus orders the children to stay inside the house. As soon as the dog comes within shooting range, with the children already inside the house, Calpurina makes her choice, and Scout describes Calpurnia as having "opened the screen door, latched it behind her, then unlatched it and held onto the hook" (Ch. 10). Scout further narrates that Calpurnia "tried to block Jem and me with her body, but we looked out from beneath her arms" (Ch. 10). Since Calpurnia is obviously trying to block the children's view as well as keep them inside of the house, it is clear that she made the choice to try and protect the children from seeing the dog being shot. Yet, regardless of her efforts, the children witness the dog being shot, not by Sheriff Tate but by their father, a vision that truly surprises them since they had come to the conclusion Atticus wasn't good at anything due to his age.

Hence, as we can see, Calpurnia was faced with two difficult choices, or dilemmas in this chapter: (1) Attempting to warn the Radleys or keeping herself safe instead; and (2) protecting the children from a terrible vision or allowing them to face reality. Though she fails in her efforts to protect the children from the vision of the dog being shot, her failure does not seem to harm the children. Instead, they benefit from learning more about their father, whose actions and restraints teach them a lesson in humility.

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