This chapter marks the beginning of Tom Robinson's trial, which will be the primary focus of the narrative for the next five chapters. The action picks up where it left off in Chapter 15, with Jem, Scout, and Atticus heading home and then having a somber breakfast the next morning. It seems like the entire town is on the way to the courthouse to watch the trial. Some overzealous Baptists passing by Miss Maudie's house criticize her flowers for being sinful, but Miss Maudie criticizes the zealots right back. In town, Dill sees Dolphus Raymond (a white man) drinking from a paper bag and sitting with the African Americans, and Jem explains that this is just Dolphus's way. We will see more from him later.
The kids refrain from going to watch the trial until after lunch. Atticus had spent the morning in voir dire, or jury selection, so when they finally arrive the trial is just starting. The courthouse is so packed that they end up sitting in the balcony with Reverend Sykes and the African American community that has come to support Tom. On the way to their seats, Scout overhears that Atticus has been appointed by the court to defend Tom, meaning that he's required to (a fact he neglected to tell the kids, though that would've made it easier for them to defend him to his detractors). For this reason, many of the people in the courthouse don't begrudge his defending Tom, though they worry that Atticus is actually going to try to prove Tom's innocence. This seems inappropriate to them. Any other lawyer would've let Tom go to the chair.
Scout spends some time describing the courthouse's architecture (eclectic and disjointed) before moving on to describing the jury and the spectators. Judge Taylor, who sits as the bench looking like a shark with his pilot fish (stenographer) writing around him. She tells an amusing little tale about Judge Taylor throwing out a frivolous lawsuit pitting the Cunninghams vs the Coninghams (their nominally different relations), then adds that Judge Taylor had a way of chewing dry cigars down to nothing. Then Heck Tate takes the stand, and the trial truly begins.
Ecclesiastes 6:4. In the King James Version of the Bible, the full verse reads: "For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness." Those zealots who drive by Miss Maudie's house allude to this verse to suggest that Miss Maudie's is letting her vanity about being a great gardener get in the way of her faith and her piety. She snaps right back at them with another Bible verse that drives them away.
Proverbs 15:13. In the King James Version of the Bible, the entire verse reads: "A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken." Miss Maudie quotes the first half of this verse to the zealots who criticize her gardening and, in so doing, effectively tells them not to look so sour and judgmental.
William Jennings Bryan (1860 - 1925). An American statesman from Nebraska famed for his skill as an orator. He's perhaps best known for his "Cross of Gold" speech, in which he argued that the gold standard was halting progress in America and preventing the economy from growing. Miss Stephanie Crawford alludes to him to suggest that the crowd heading to Tom's trial is disproportionately large, given that Tom is not as famous or important as someone like William Jennings Bryan.
Fire. In Chapter 8, when Miss Maudie's house burned...
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to the ground, "fire" was a menacing image and threatened to destroy all of the houses on her block. Since then, fire has become associated with Miss Maudie and her garden, which is "ablaze with summer flowers." Fire in this instance is not an image of destruction but rather one of beauty, energy, and vitality. Even though the fire burned down Miss Maudie's house, she was able to rebuild it as she liked, making it more beautiful than before. Thus, the fire motif is both about destruction and renewal.
Swimming. In keeping with Scout's description of Atticus appearing to move like an underwater swimmer in Chapter 10, here she described Judge Taylor as an old, sleepy shark with his pilot fish swimming around him. This characterizes him as a big, lumbering, powerful man and emphasizes how slow his movements are (though, as we'll soon find, his mind is actually very quick).
Scout may be making a pun when she describes Judge Taylor as "a sleepy old shark," where the word "shark" is often used pejoratively to refer to lawyers.
One example of this would be Scout saying Judge Taylor looks "like a sleepy old shark."
Racism. This is most obvious in the fact that the African Americans are segregated to the balcony and not allowed to sit on the main floor of the courthouse along with the white people. It's also clear, just from the conversation that Scout overhears, that Atticus is the only reason Tom's getting a decent defense. If not for him, he'd be shafted and have no chance in court. It's implied through this that African Americans don't have the same legal protections that white people do and that racism has been systematized in Alabama to the point where any African American on trial is assumed to be guilty before the trial even begins.