Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
Scout chases down Walter Cunningham and grinds his face into the dirt at lunchtime because of what happened with Miss Caroline. Jem stops her from beating him up, however, citing the fact that their fathers know each other (Scout said in Chapter 2 that Walter’s family were so poor that they paid Atticus for his services with gifts of wood, holly, and chestnuts). Jem then invites Walter to lunch, bragging on the way home about how he once touched the Radley house. At lunch (which Scout calls “dinner”), Scout criticizes Walter for pouring syrup over his entire plate. Calpurnia is livid because of this and punishes Scout by making her eat in the kitchen instead of at the dinner table. Scout thinks this is reason enough to fire Calpurnia, but Atticus refuses to.
Back at school, Miss Caroline screams, “It’s alive!” as if she’s seen a mouse. In fact, it’s a cootie living in Burris Ewell’s hair. None of the kids are bothered by this, least of all Burris Ewell, but it leaves Miss Caroline shaken up. She’s not prepared to face Burris Ewell, one of the Ewell clan of children who show up on the first day of school, then ditch for the rest of the year. Burris doesn’t leave until Miss Caroline starts crying and the other kids have to comfort her. Back home, Scout is even more confused when Calpurnia says she missed Scout while she was at school. When her father tells her it’s time to read, it’s too much for her, and she goes to sulk on the front porch. She and Atticus strike a compromise: if she goes to school, they can keep reading together in secret.
This chapter has several examples of alliteration—Miss Caroline’s “sudden shriek,” the Finches’ “silver saucer,” and Burris Ewell’s threat, “Make me, missus,” to name a few.
The Dewey Decimal System. Jem erroneously refers to this as a teaching method when it is, in fact, a classification system that libraries use to arrange their books. It was first employed in the 18th Century and was already in use in many schools by the 1930s, when the novel is set.
The conflict in this chapter is largely benign, as it was in Chapters 1 and 2. Both Scout’s conflicts with Calpurnia and Walter stem from the conflict with Miss Caroline in Chapter 1, which in itself demonstrates Scout’s often quarrelsome nature. When she describes Calpurnia as “fractious,” it’s clear that Scout is really talking about herself and isn’t, as a child, the best judge of her actions.
Burris Ewell vs. Miss Caroline. Once again, Miss Caroline’s lack of familiarity with Maycomb’s ways leads to conflict, this time with Burris Ewell, who has been showing up for the first day of first grade for three years and is just about to leave when Miss Caroline sees a cootie on his head and screams. Burris’s attack of Miss Caroline and school in general is mean-spirited and ugly and leaves her in tears. Scout and all the other children have to comfort her and explain that it’s just his way. As we’ll see later, the Ewells are all like that.
Scout vs. Calpurnia. This conflict flares up in the middle of the chapter, when Calpurnia punishes Scout for criticizing Walter’s fondness for syrup. Their fight is so contentious that Scout actually wants Atticus to fire Calpurnia because of it. He of course does no such thing, and Scout is left smarting for the rest of the afternoon, until she comes home to find that Calpurnia has made her favorite cracklin’ bread. When Calpurnia tells Scout she missed her, the girl is so befuddled that she doesn’t know what to think. Their conflict isn’t over yet, but will begin to ebb after this chapter.
Scout vs. Walter Cunningham. When the chapter opens, Scout is chasing down Walter and grinding his face into the dirt because he’s indirectly responsible for her getting in trouble with Miss Caroline in Chapter 2. Eventually, Jem pulls Scout off of Walter and invites him over to their house for lunch. Scout, unable to fully let go of their fight, criticizes him for pouring syrup all over his plate. Part of this disdain for him stems from Scout’s superior social status: Walter Cunningham is from one of the poorest families in Maycomb, and, intentionally or no, Scout thinks that she’s better than Walter. This will change later in the novel, but, for now, Scout has no respect for Walter.
Lee’s use of diction is most apparent when Scout’s narrative voice breaks to allow Atticus’ use of legal jargon to seep through. Whenever this happens, the distinctly Southern character of Scout’s voice is enhanced, while Atticus’ formal speech and mannerisms become more apparent.
Scout’s narrative voice makes use of many idioms, including: “I’ll be dogged,” “what in the Sam hill are you doing?” and Scout’s warning that she would “fix” Calpurnia or get back at her. These idioms contribute to the authenticity of Scout’s voice and emphasize her Southern roots.
In addition to the alliterative phrases “sudden shriek” and “silver saucer,” Scout uses repetition in the scenes at school when she refers to the character Little Chuck Little, who appears, contrary to his name, to be something of a scrappy fighter, capable of scaring the bigger (and meaner) Burris Ewell. Lee uses repetition to trick the reader into thinking Little Chuck isn’t capable of violence.
Harper Lee uses the symbols in this chapter to indicate social status. Later in the novel, symbols will be used as tools of character development, as elements of moral and logical arguments, and, collectively, as a method of emphasizing key themes (for example, innocence and justice).
Atticus’ Pocket Watch. Unsurprisingly, Atticus’ pocket watch is a symbol of time and its passing. He tends to take it out of his pocket when he wants to think, and in so doing imparts the watch with a sort of ruminative power, as if it were a talisman.
Cooties. When we say someone has cooties, we typically mean that they’re dirty and shouldn’t be touched or associated with (often, this is said of young boys). That Burris has a literal cootie in his hair is a symbol of his self-imposed social isolation, which he cultivates with vicious satisfaction.
Compromise. Atticus and Scout strike a bargain at the end of this chapter: if she goes back to school, then they can continue reading together in secret. He uses this as an opportunity to teach her about the idea of compromise, which he defines as two or more parties making concessions in order to reach an agreement. There will be many compromises in this novel, some more balanced than others.
Courage. The Finch children, being kids, have an underdeveloped idea of what constitutes real bravery. As such, Jem believes that running up and touching the Radley house was an act of great courage on his part, though Scout is quick to point out that he’s obviously still afraid of the Radleys. Later in the novel, their idea of courage will develop and become less childish.
Education. As in Chapter 2, education is a major theme and a source of some disillusionment for Scout. Her conflict with Miss Caroline sours her on formal education and makes her long for Atticus to take Miss Caroline’s place and homeschool her instead. This doesn’t happen, but from here on out the elementary school and the teachers there will be a source of frustration and amusement for Scout, who holds many of their teaching methods in disdain.
Empathy. Atticus attempts to teach Scout about empathy when he tells her, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view....” This is the equivalent of telling her to walk in someone else’s shoes in order to understand them. Scout doesn’t know how to do this as of yet, and it isn’t until the final chapters that she learns this lesson.
Gossip. Yet again, much of the gossip in this chapter concerns Boo Radley, whom Walter calls a “hain’t.” (A hain’t is a ghost or a spooky person).
Humor. Much of the humor in the novel stems from Scout’s narrative voice, which is naturally sharp and humorous, while at the same time being sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of life in Maycomb. She’s an innately perceptive character who enjoys pointing out curious facts and behaviors, such as the fact that sometimes Dr. Reynolds will accept payment in the form of a bushel of potatoes for his help delivering a baby. Lee uses these comical moments to temper the more serious events of the novel and provide some much needed levity to the narrative.
Loneliness. When Scout returns from her first day of school, she’s surprised to find that Calpurnia missed her and was lonely without her and Jem around the house. This loneliness helps develop Calpurnia’s character, which has been fairly flat thus far, thanks to Scout’s view of her as a disciplinarian. As the narrative progresses, Lee will continue to use loneliness as a way of creating empathy for her characters, particularly those who have been misunderstood.
Superstition. The children in Maycomb believe in “hain’ts,” or ghosts. That Walter calls Boo a hain’t suggests that there’s something otherworldly about him that frightens the children. Later, Scout will learn that this isn’t true, but for the moment, at least, the children hold onto their superstitions.
Violence. Though the conflict between Burris Ewell and Miss Caroline has its humorous moments, it is, by and large, a frightening encounter, with Burris calling Miss Caroline a “slut” and behaving in an inappropriate manner. There’s also a moment during this fight when Little Chuck Little threatens Burris and sticks his hand into his pocket as if he has a knife there. Little Chuck Little was earlier described as having infinite patience, and his sudden threat of violence here is meant to indicate that Maycomb isn’t as safe as it would purport to be.