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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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In chapter 21 of To Kill a Mockingbird, why are Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra upset?

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In chapter 21 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra are upset with the children because they were told by Atticus to stay at the house on the day of Tom Robinson's trial. Calpurnia is sent to the courthouse with a note for Atticus from his sister about the children having been missing for some time. Mr. Underwood points out that the kids have been up in the colored balcony since 1:18 p.m. During a court recess, Atticus and Calpurnia walk the children home for dinner. Calpurnia lays into Jem because he permitted Scout to listen to the trial along with him. She warns him that Aunt Alexandra will have a stroke once she discovers where the children have been all day long. Jem doesn't flinch at the warning, though, because he actually asks Cal if she wants to know the details of the trial. Calpurnia responds by saying that he should be ashamed for what he's done and if his father doesn't whoop him, she will. Aunt Alexandra ends up saying nothing because Atticus told the kids they could go back. She must have felt undermined by him, so she doesn't say a word during dinner. 

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In chapter 21 of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra both become upset when they learn that Jem and Scout have been watching the trial of Tom Robinson. They believe that the content of a rape trial is not appropriate for such young children to hear.

When Calpurnia scolds the children for being in the courthouse, we see some character development for Jem. Up until now, Jem, along with Scout, has been pretty well contained under Calpurnia’s thumb. Now, however, Jem has gotten a little older and a little wiser, and is beginning to think more for himself. Look at how he reacts to Calpurnia’s words:

“When you oughta be hangin;’ your head in shame you go along laughin’—“ Calpurnia revived a series of rusty threats that moved Jem to little remorse, and she sailed up the front steps with her classic, “If Mr. Finch don’t wear you out, I will—get in that house, sir!” Jem went in grinning . . .

Notice that Calpurnia’s attempts to discipline Jem are now having little effect. When he should be worried or cowed he is grinning. This demonstrates that Jem is maturing and forming his own ideas of right and wrong that are not necessarily subject to the admonitions of someone besides Atticus.

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When Jem and Scout go to watch Tom's trial, Calpurnia does not know where they are. She goes to the courthouse and interrupts the proceedings to tell Atticus the children are missing. They are not missing; they are sitting in the balcony with Rev. Sykes. When Atticus calls them down and Cal escorts them home for dinner, she is very angry, especially with Jem:

--skin every one of you alive, the very idea, you children listenin' to all that ! Mister Jem, don't you know better'n take your little sister to that trial? Miss Alexandra'll absolutely have a stroke of paralysis when she finds out! Ain't fittin' for children to hear . . . .

The idea the Jem and Scout have heard the testimony in a rape trial is horrendous to Cal. She also is correct in predicting Alexandra's strong reaction to this situation. Aunt Alexandra almost faints when she learns where the children have spent the afternoon. She is even more upset (Scout says "hurt") when she learns that Atticus has approved their returning to court after dinner to hear the verdict.

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