Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis
After hearing the story of how Bob Ewell spat in Atticus's face and dared him to fight, Scout and the kids set about trying to force Atticus to carry a gun and defend himself. They try a number of different tactics: asking him, throwing a tantrum, refusing to eat. Eventually, Atticus realizes just how scared they are and explains that he's willing to let Ewell spit in his face if it means Mayella and Ewell's other kids are spared a beating. Atticus doesn't think they have anything more to fear from Ewell, but Aunt Alexandra isn't sure. Atticus destroyed Ewell's credibility on the stand, and he's the kind to hold a grudge.
Scout and Jem then ask Atticus about Tom, who has been sent to Enfield Prison Farm in Chester County, seventy miles away. His wife and children aren't allowed to visit him. This sparks Jem to wonder if rape shouldn't be a capital offense and if the jury could've been more lenient with Tom. Atticus then explains to Jem that the law isn't fair sometimes and that judges and juries should be careful when sentencing convicts to death, particularly when the death penalty disproportionately affects black men (as it still does today). He tells them in no uncertain terms that any white man who takes advantage of a black man is trash and that someday karma is going to come for racists like Ewell.
It all comes back to the makeup of Tom's jury. Unfortunately, women weren't allowed to serve on juries in Alabama in the 1930s, so someone like Miss Maudie, who could've made a difference in Tom's trial, wasn't allowed to sit on the jury. However, there was one hold-out who kept insisting that Tom deserved an acquittal: one of the Cunninghams from Old Sarum. It turns out that Scout and Atticus earned the entire Cunningham family's respect that night outside the jailhouse, and on a hunch Atticus put one of them on the jury, thinking perhaps that this would work in his favor. It was a risk, but it almost worked. Because of this, Scout's opinion of Walter Cunningham changes and she makes plans to invite him over once school starts. Unfortunately, Aunt Alexandra doesn't like this idea. She thinks that Walter is trash. Evidently, she and Atticus have different definitions of that word.
Afterward, Jem shows Scout a hair (he thinks is) growing on his chest, and the two discuss Jem's theory that there are four different kinds of folks in Maycomb: people like them, people like the Cunninghams, people like the Ewells, and then the African Americans. This is not terribly unlike Aunt Alexandra's caste system. Scout thinks there's only one kind of folks—folks—but Jem isn't so sure. He's beginning to think that Boo Radley stays inside all the time because he wants to.
Popular Mechanics. One of the longest running magazines in the United States. First published in 1902, it's a popular technology magazine featuring sections about cars, trucks, home repair, and the outdoors. Jem is reading it when he complains to Atticus that Tom's conviction isn't fair.
Atticus vs. Bob Ewell. This conflict has its roots in Chapter 17, when Atticus embarrassed Ewell on the stand. He didn't expect Ewell to confront him about it and doesn't consider Ewell a threat, but this conflict will in fact prove fatal for Ewell later in the novel. It's also connected to the themes of pride, racism, and violence, which have at various times been associated with Ewell.
Lee foreshadows Tom's death in Chapter 24 by having Atticus discuss the death penalty here.
Class. Much like Aunt Alexandra does with her caste system, Jem attempts to divide Maycomb up into different types (or classes) of people determined by whether or not the person can read and write. In other words, he's attempting to impose artificial methods of social stratification based on one's level of education. His system isn't perfect, and Scout disagrees with it, saying that there are only folks—just folks, no different classes. This is a very egalitarian view not unlike the line "all men are created equal" that Atticus quotes during Tom's trial. Jem thinks this theory is naive, but Lee herself, though she appears to align herself more with Scout, doesn't take sides in this argument.
Death. Looming over this entire chapter is the knowledge that Tom has been sentenced to death and that if his conviction isn't overturned on appeal he'll very likely be executed for a crime that he didn't commit. This upsets Jem and leads Atticus to explain that the death penalty isn't used as fairly or as carefully as it should be. This conversation foreshadows Tom's death in the next chapter.
Fear. At the beginning of this chapter, the kids are so gripped with fear that Ewell will do something to harm Atticus that they try to convince him to carry a gun. Atticus tells them not to worry, but this doesn't assuage their fears, and the entire family expects there to be trouble ahead. Curiously, all of them assume that Atticus will be the target of Ewell's rage, and none of them fear for their own safety. This will prove to be a mistake.
Innocence. In many ways, this entire novel is about the loss of innocence Scout and the children experience, and this chapter marks an important point in their moral and psychological development, as they begin to understand just how unfair the justice system can be.
Law. Hand in hand with law is justice, and wherever the two diverge in this novel racism is the culprit. Though Atticus is a very good and very respectable lawyer, he's aware that some laws need to be changed and knows that, in spite of this necessity, changing the law will take a long time. When he explains this to the children, he's effectively telling them that the society they live in is flawed and that society's problems will take a long time to fix. This is, naturally, quite discouraging, but not entirely without hope: there are more people in Maycomb who think Tom's innocent than the kids realized.
Pride. In the beginning of the chapter, Ewell accuses Atticus of being too proud to fight him. This says more about Ewell's pride, which was wounded during the trial, than about Atticus's pride, which is firm and well-founded, rooted as it is in his sense of honor and moral code. That he's willing to take Bob Ewell's verbal abuse to save Mayella a beating says wonders about his character, just as Ewell's propensity for violence further damages his public image.
Racism. Yet another example of racism in this novel is that Tom is sentenced to death rather than twenty years in prison. This is part of a larger, systemic problem that results in the majority of prisoners on death row being African American. Today, African Americans and other minority groups are disproportionately represented in prison populations, just as they were in the 1930s.
Safety. Once again, we see that when safety becomes a concern, people often turn to guns or weapons to protect themselves and their family. In this case, Scout and the kids are urging Atticus to carry a gun, knowing how deadly he can be and understanding that he must protect himself from Ewell. The kids don't, however, take their own safety into account, and this will cause problems later.