In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Scout, Jem, and Dill go downtown one night to look for Atticus. They find him sitting outside the jail late at night and “reading, oblivious of the nightbugs dancing over his head.”
Scout does not understand the reason behind this strange behavior. After all, why is Atticus there in the middle of the night and not at home getting ready for bed? Scout wants to run to Atticus, but Jem catches her, saying,
“Don’t go to him,” he said, “he might not like it. He’s all right, let’s go home. I just wanted to see where he was.”
Scout is oblivious, but it is obvious that Jem's fear for his father’s safety was the reason he wanted to go downtown to see that Atticus was alright. Jem senses that something is amiss. It is then that the mob approaches. Four cars pull up to the jail and Atticus “seemed to be expecting them.”
Looking back on this incident years later, the adult Scout refers to it as a “sickeningly comic aspect of an unfunny situation,” because Atticus tells the men not to wake Tom and, in deference to Atticus, they whisper. Nevertheless, they are unwilling to leave. Jem might not fully recognize the hostile racial situation, but he intuitively he senses the tension between the men and his father. Jem is older and understands much more than Scout does. He is worried about Atticus.
By comparison, Scout views the gathering as almost a festive one. Impetuously, she runs to her father and shouts “Hey, Atticus!” Scout says:
I thought he would have a fine surprise, but his face killed my joy. A flash of plain fear was going out of his eyes, but returned when Dill and Jem wriggled into the light.
Scout's actions cause Atticus even greater concern. Now, he is not only fearful for Tom’s safety, but for the children's as well. Ironically, however, Scout's actions are probably what ultimately defuse the situation. Scout looks around at the mob and realizes that the men are strangers to her. Her emotion is one of embarrassment, not fear. She has no idea that the men harbor violent thoughts and that this is a potentially dangerous situation. She behaves as if this were some sort of party, although she is embarrassed that she does not know any of the guests. She even says that when she ran to Atticus, she “leaped triumphantly.”
Atticus tells the children to go home, but Jem defies him.
Jem shook his head. As Atticus’s fists went to his hips, so did Jem’s, and as they faced each other I could see little resemblance between them: Jem’s soft brown hair and eyes, his oval face and snug-fitting ears were our mother’s, contrasting oddly with Atticus’s graying black hair and square-cut features, but they were somehow alike. Mutual defiance made them alike.
“Son, I said go home.”
Jem shook his head.
Scout, still behaving like a...
little girl, finally spies one familiar face in the crowd. She calls out to him in a friendly way. When the man does not respond, she reminds him that his son Walter is a classmate of hers. As Scout rambles on, she "was slowly drying up, wondering what idiocy [she] had committed.”
Finally, probably because of Scout’s childish innocence, the man bends down and places his hands on her shoulders in a friendly gesture. He then tells the other men, “Let’s clear out.”