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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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By the end of chapter 24, what has Scout learned about "being a lady"?

By the end of chapter 24, Scout has learned that "being a lady" is about more than outward appearances and manners. But she also learns to appreciate the strength of Aunt Alexandra and other important women in her life.

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At the end of chapter 24, Atticus enters the kitchen and tells Aunt Alexandra, Miss, Maudie, Scout, and Calpurnia that Tom Robinson was shot and killed trying to escape from the prison yard. He is shaken, and he takes Calpurnia with him to tell Robinson's wife the bad news.

After Atticus and Calpurnia have gone, Aunt Alexandra has an outburst in which she attacks the townspeople for what they have done to Atticus. She says:

They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do.

Miss Maudie responds that the handful of white people in the town who deplore the injustice doled out to Black people appreciate and honor Atticus.

However, shaken as they are, Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra know the show must go on. They need to return to the Ladies' Missionary Society tea as if nothing important had just happened. Scout comes with them and is able to see her aunt and neighbor as steel spined "ladies" in their ability to retain their graciousness as if nothing is wrong. This allows her to perceive being a lady in a new and more favorable light as a form of grace under pressure, and for once she doesn't resent playing the ladylike part. When Aunt Alexandra nods at her to offer around cookies:

I carefully picked up the tray and watched myself walk to Mrs. Merriweather. With my best company manners, I asked her if she would have some. After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.

While the young Scout, living in the 1930s, imbues this "ladylike" behavior with a patina of nobility, viewing it from a twenty-first century perspective might invite us to a look at it more critically. Aunt Alexandra's overwhelming concern is for the effects of Tom's death on Atticus, with no thought to Tom's devastated family or to the loss of such a vibrant life to the community. This could be seen as a tad self centered and racist, even if Atticus is her brother. Second, modern feminism might object to courage and grace being equated with women's ability to stay silent.

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Through much of To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise is resolutely Scout, an active child who prefers the company of boys. Significantly, she seems to have no female friends. Scout is equally quick to speak her mind and physically engage with someone who disagrees. Scout spurns dresses and favors overalls. Although she has learned good manners, she tends to forget to use them.

Scout learns about being a lady primarily from Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, and Aunt Alexandra. When Walter has lunch with them, Calpurnia helps her see the importance of making people feel welcome in their home, and not criticizing their manners. Miss Maudie constantly helps Scout interpret the confusing world around her and provides a model of a self-sufficient woman who can peacefully co-exist with people whose opinions she does not share.

Chapter 24 is significant...

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because Scout’s opinion of Aunt Alexandra changes. Scout has been resentful of her great-aunt’s critical attitudes, regarding her efforts to make Scout more traditionally feminine as “fanatical.” In this chapter, Scout has begrudgingly agreed to put on a dress—with her customary pants underneath—and be an assistant hostess for the aunt’s ladies’ missionary-support meeting. She chafes at the hypocritical, small-minded talk of the perfumed, pastel-clad guests.

The situation changes abruptly, however, when Atticus arrives with the news of Tom’s death. In the kitchen, she sees the real aunt who loves and worries about her nephew, and understands her genuine friendship with Miss Maudie. Scout learns that ladies must sometimes put on a brave face when they are feeling most afraid.

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Generally, she learns that, when it comes to being a lady, it's not what's on the outside, but what's on the inside that counts. Aunt Alexandra sees it as her overriding duty in life to teach Scout how to be a lady, and her understanding of what that means is related to the traditional notion of the genteel, upstanding epitome of womanhood that's such an important part of Southern folklore. But Scout's too much of a tomboy, way too enamored of wearing overalls, to fit into that mold. She'd much rather be like Miss Maudie Atkinson, a free spirit like herself, who speaks her mind and defies social convention.

Scout's attendance at Aunt Alexandra's missionary circle makes her become even more estranged from prevailing notions of what's considered ladylike behavior. The ladies of the circle appear to fulfill all the relevant criteria of ideal Southern womanhood—they're soberly-dressed, gracious, and formally polite. Unfortunately, as Scout soon discovers, they're also hypocritical, expressing concern over the plight of a remote African tribe while using racist epithets to describe their domestic servants.

Sometimes it takes the eyes of a child to see through the falsity of adult social conventions, and that's precisely what happens here. Inviting Scout to the missionary circle's little gathering was a big mistake on the part of Aunt Alexandra. She's now virtually guaranteed that Scout will not grow up to be her idea of what a fine Southern lady ought to be.

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I think this is a great question. Everyone's definition of "lady" is likely different. I think the portrayal of the woman of the society is not necessarily embodied in either Aunt Alexandra or Miss Maudie (although they are truly admirable ladies in the chapter). What Scout learns about what it meant to be a lady in Maycomb is troubling to her and to us as readers. She learned that being a lady meant gossiping about other people. It meant acting like you are doing good, but being a hypocrite about it. It meant drinking tea and making fake compliments about how good the goodies are. It meant dressing uncomfortably to impress other people. I think this shows that the Southern woman she saw was not the Southern woman she wanted to become which is why Maudie and Alexandra's fortitude after the news of Tom's death is so important.

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In my opinion, what Scout has learned by the end of this chapter is that her Aunt Alexandra is a lady, and Miss Maudie probably is, but none of the others in the Missionary Circle is a lady.

What I mean by this is that being a lady does not mean being superior and looking down on other people.  If you are a lady, Scout learns, you need to be caring and fair.  You need to not be hypocritical like the other women who are at the gathering.

Finally, I guess, being a lady means bearing up under stress and sadness and not letting those things show.

So being a lady is pretty much like being a good person.

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