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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Describe Jem and Scout's behavior at the jailhouse in To Kill a Mockingbird. Describe Jem's behavior when he confronts Atticus at the jailhouse and also meets a mob of hostile men. Then describe Scout's behavior in the setting mentioned above.

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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...

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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.”

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As was mentioned in the previous post, Jem displays his maturity by refusing to leave his father in a dangerous situation while Scout naively attempts to have a conversation with the leader of the lynch mob. Scout can no longer contain her curiosity and runs out of her hiding spot to see Atticus. Unlike Jem, Scout has no idea that the men surrounding Atticus are attempting to harm Tom Robinson and tries to get the attention of Mr. Cunningham. After Jem follows his sister out of hiding, Atticus tells him to go home. Jem defies his father and demonstrates his courage and loyalty by refusing to leave. Even after Jem is threatened by one of the men from Old Sarum he refuses to abandon his father. Jem fully understands the gravity of the situation while Scout is oblivious to the immediate danger. Fortunately, Mr. Cunningham is able to perceive the situation from Atticus' point of view and instructs his men to leave the scene. 

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Jem's maturity seems to give him an advantage over Scout in this particular situation. Jem senses that something is wrong, and that Atticus may be in some danger. Scout, however, doesn't seem to have a clue about why the lynch-minded group of Maycomb citizens have congregated. Jem defiantly refuses to leave his father despite Atticus' insistence. Scout, meanwhile, kicks one of the men--not as an act of protecting Atticus but because the man has attempted to move her out of the way. Both of the children recognize some of the men as neighbors and townspeople, but neither seem to understand their true motives. Jem only realizes that something is not right, and when he sees the normally unflappable Atticus in a nervous state, he knows that he must remain. Of course, it is Scout's naive conversation with Mr. Cunningham that saves the day, shaming the men into leaving rather than display violence before the innocent children.

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