Scout and Jem's Aunt Alexandra is a divisive figure in the Finch household. Judgmental and intolerant, she castigates Scout for associating with Walter Cunningham, a desperately poor classmate, and she is critical of her brother, Atticus, for agreeing to defend Tom Robinson, the African American accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell.
Aunt Alexandra, as Scout points out, is not Scout's favorite person: "I was sure she was swapped at birth and that my grandparents had gotten the wrong child." Alexandra is the antithesis of Atticus, and her presence invariably upsets Scout's world. Scout's cousin Francis, Alexandra's grandson, accusingly confronts Scout one day, referencing his grandmother's comments regarding Atticus's decision with regard to Tom Robinson:
“Grandma says it’s bad enough he lets you run wild, but now he’s turned out a n****r-lover we’ll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb again. He’s ruinin’ the family, that’s what he’s doin’.”
Alexandra's frequent criticisms of Scout for the latter's perceived shortage of feminine attributes is a constant source of tension between the two and within the household as a whole. Additionally, Alexandra's disapproval of Atticus's decision to defend Tom Robinson remains a source of tension.
Her racist attitudes aside, Alexandra is as shocked and saddened at the news of Tom Robinson's death as the others are, asking of Atticus, “Didn’t they try to stop him? Didn’t they give him any warning?”
It is in Chapter 24, following the revelation about Tom Robinson's death, that Alexandra confides in Maudie a major reason for her opposition to Atticus's defense of the man accused of rape:
“I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want him to know when this will ever end. It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him to pieces. I’ve seen him when – what else do they want from him, Maudie, what else?”
“What does who want, Alexandra?” Miss Maudie asked.
“I mean this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re –”
This is an enlightening passage in Lee's novel. It humanizes Alexandra, heretofore observed mainly making life miserable for Scout and condemning the socioeconomic status of those less fortunate. Tom's death, Atticus's encounter with Bob Ewell, and, finally, the fatal confrontation between the Finch children and Ewell have a moderating effect on Aunt Alexandra, symbolized by this authoritarian figure's gesture towards the traumatized Scout:
“Is Jem dead?” I asked Aunt Alexandra.
“No – no darling, he’s unconscious. What happened?”
“I don’t know.” She left it at that and brought me some overalls to put on.
This final reference to Scout's overalls symbolizes Aunt Alexandra's recognition that the Finch family has sacrificed dearly for the cause of moral righteousness, and that, all things considered, Scout's preference for boyish clothing is not so bad after all.
Aunt Alexandra certainly mellows as the novel wears on, and she seems to be at her kindest when the chips are down. She is genuinely concerned about Atticus's reaction to the guilty verdict.
"I'm sorry, brother," she murmered. Having never heard her call Atticus "brother" before... (Chapter 22)
She is also upset when Atticus interrupts her Missionary Circle tea with the news of Tom's death. "Aunt Alexandra put her hands to her mouth" and "Alexandra's voice shook" when she spoke.
"This is the last straw, Atticus," Aunt Alexandra said. (Chapter 24)
After Bob Ewell's attack on the children, Alexandra blames herself for not recognizing the meaning of the premonition she had (when "somebody just walked over my grave") just before the children left for the Halloween pageant.
"This is my fault..." (Chapter 29)
But her unseen motherly instincts emerge after the children return home with Boo. Even Scout recognizes the change that comes over her aunt.
She brought me something to put on, and had I thought about it then, I would never have let her forget it: in her distraction, Aunty brought me my overalls. "Put these on, darling," handing me the garments she most despised. (Chapter 28)