To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download To Kill a Mockingbird Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Allusions

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.

Conflict

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.

Foreshadowing

Lee foreshadows Tom's death in Chapter 24 by having Atticus discuss the death penalty here.

Themes

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...

(The entire section is 1,236 words.)