Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis
This chapter opens with the humorous line, "Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty." This serves as the premise of the chapter, which Atticus later disproves through his actions. In the beginning of the chapter, Scout and Jem are embarrassed by Atticus because he's old, doesn't play football, works in an office, wears glasses, and intends to defend Tom Robinson in court. What's more, he won't teach them how to shoot their new air rifles. He does, however, tell them not to shoot down mockingbirds, because it's a sin. Miss Maudie elaborates: mockingbirds don't do anything but fly around and make music for us to enjoy. She also says that Atticus was a master checker player (a fact that Scout finds even more embarrassing). Irritated, Scout aims her air rifle at Miss Maudie's behind that evening, but Atticus stops her from shooting.
One Saturday, a rabid dog by the name of Tim Johnson comes twitching slowly down the road to the Finch house. Calpurnia rushes the children inside and calls Atticus at the office. He drives up with Heck Tate, the Sheriff, who confirms that Tim Johnson does indeed have rabies. Jem makes the grim observation that the dog is "lookin' for a place to die." Heck Tate can't make the shot, so he hands the rifle to Atticus, who protests at first, because he hasn't shot a gun in thirty years. His children are surprised to learn that he was once called One-Shot Finch because of his deadly aim, and they have a hard time processing it when Atticus shoots Tim Johnson. Miss Maudie explains that Atticus gave up shooting when he realized that it gave him an "unfair advantage" over other living things. Jem later calls Atticus a "gentleman" because of it.
Some examples of this would be Miss Stephanie Crawford's "face framed" in the window or the idea that mad dogs "leaped and lunged at throats."
Swimming. In Chapter 4, Jem was described as "treading water" at the Radleys' gate, pausing a brief moment before running in after the tire Scout left on the Radley lot. Lee uses a second swimming-related image in Chapter 10 when Scout says Atticus moved slowly, "like an underwater swimmer." The swimming motif thus becomes linked to the theme of time, which appears in the novel to ebb and flow like water.
One example of this would be Tim Johnson shivering "like a horse shedding flies."
Guns. In this chapter, guns are both symbols of death and (occasional) sources of amusement, as when Scout aims her air rifle at Miss Maudie's behind. These air rifles are toys and downplay the more traditional symbolism associated with guns (that of death and destruction). When Atticus shoots Tim Johnson, that symbolism comes to the forefront, but is tempered by the fact that Atticus has to kill Tim Johnson to keep his family and the rest of Maycomb safe from the dog's rabies. Thus, guns are also methods of protection and symbolize the need for safety.
Mockingbirds. When Atticus tells the children that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, he establishes it as a symbol of innocence and, ultimately, of vulnerability, because the mockingbird can't defend itself. Miss Maudie explains that the mockingbird is innocent because it doesn't do anything but make music for people to enjoy. Later, we'll see how Tom Robinson and Boo Radley themselves become the symbolic mockingbirds of the book.
Age. Scout's erroneous assumption that Atticus is feeble because he's fifty further emphasizes the age differences between Scout, Jem, and Atticus. Jem, who is five years older than Scout, has pulled away from her, in terms of interests and maturity level, but when compared to Atticus and other adults in the novel, the two seem more alike, thus proving that age, like time, is relative.
Death. Tim Johnson's death isn't the first in this novel, in which both Mr. Radley and Mrs. Radley have already died without Scout so much as batting an eyelash, but it is the first death that has a real effect on the Finch children, who are shocked by their father's skill with a gun. Tim Johnson, an innocent dog who happened to be infected with rabies, is sometimes considered a mockingbird, like Tom and Boo, but the fact of his disease muddies the symbolism considerably.
Innocence. Mockingbirds are symbols of innocence, which makes this one of the most important themes in the novel. In addition to the symbolic mockingbirds of Tom and Boo, innocence can be found in Scout, Jem, and Dill, who undergo a loss of innocence later in the novel, when they watch Tom's trial. Unsurprisingly, Lee associates innocence with youth and the natural world—two things that are traditionally considered innocent and pure.
Sin. In previous chapters, Lee established sin as a theme in relation to Christianity and the sometimes extreme beliefs of Christians in Maycomb. Here, Atticus reorients the theme of "sin" to a purely moral or personal belief in what's right and wrong, effectively eliminating the extreme religious connotations of the word "sin." This is an important change, because it allows Scout and Jem to develop their sense of morality independent of their religion.
Time. Thus far in the narrative, the pocket watches have hinted at the theme of time, which has by and large had little effect on the novel, except where Scout has dipped into flashback and employed foreshadowing. In this chapter, time becomes an important theme, both in relation to age and to the speed of events, as when it slows to a crawl while Atticus prepares to shoot Tim Johnson. In the beginning of the chapter, Scout makes a point of saying that Atticus is old and feeble, but her perception of time and age changes when Atticus shoots the dog. Suddenly, she realizes that time is relative and that the way she perceives time can be affected by her emotional state.