Scout’s experience attending her aunt Alexandra’s missionary circle is eye-opening for the young girl. The gathering of women that occurs in Chapter 24 of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird provides the author’s young precocious narrator an opportunity to observe and comment on the eclectic group gathered in her home. Scout does not initially intend to participate in the discussions that day, but Alexandra invites her into the circle. As Scout explains regarding her aunt’s invitation/summons, this “was a part of her campaign to teach me to be a lady.” The presence of Miss Maudie proves crucial to Scout’s ability to endure the idiosyncrasies of the various personalities present, but the conversations that take place are a challenge.
Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee observes through the eyes of her young protagonist the prejudices and myriad shortcomings among the town of Maycomb’s citizenry. The issues of racial prejudice and judgmentalism are a constant theme in Lee’s novel, and they are present during the missionary circle’s gathering. Among the more notable occurrences during the gathering involve Mrs. Grace Merriweather, “the most devout lady in Maycomb,” as Scout notes. Mrs. Merriweather dominates much of the discussion, focusing on her experiences in Africa among a tribe called the Mrunas. Mrs. Merriweather was in Africa as part of a church mission to bring Western civilization and Christianity to the impoverished of the continent. It is during Mrs. Merriweather’s discussion of the Mrunas and the poverty she observed that the hypocrisy of these supposedly cultured, educated women is most apparent. Note, in the following passage, the irony apparent in Lee’s narration:
“When Mrs. Merriweather shook her head, her black curls jiggled. ‘Jean Louise,’ she said, ‘you are a fortunate girl. You live in a Christian home with Christian folks in a Christian town. Out there in J. Grimes Everett’s land there’s nothing but sin and squalor.’”
To Kill a Mockingbird depicts racial prejudice and injustice at its most basic. Racism is the novel’s most enduring image. The arrest, trial, and conviction of Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman, constitutes Lee’s most damning indictment of the prejudices and narrow-mindedness that dominate the culture she depicts. The population of Maycomb is rife with the kind of racism that repeatedly led to miscarriages of justice and that tarnished the country in which these crimes took place. The most important development that occurs during the missionary circle, then, is the blatant hypocrisy evident in Mrs. Merriweather’s comments regarding Christianity and the destitute tribes of Africa she visited. That the meeting should involve so much discussion of the moral superiority of Christians at the same time these Christian citizens of the American South can so cavalierly countenance a miscarriage of justice involving an innocent black man becomes even more important when the gathering is interrupted by the arrival of Atticus with the news that Tom Robinson was shot and killed. That, and recognition that despite their differences, Aunt Alexandra and Miss Maudie and Scout could find common ground within the atmosphere of hypocrisy, are the most significant developments of the day.
In Chapter 24, Scout attends Aunt Alexandra's missionary circle along with several other ladies from the Maycomb community. Scout is apprehensive about joining the conversation and listens as the ladies discuss J. Grimes Everett's missionary work in Africa. Throughout their conversation, Lee exposes Mrs. Merriweather's ignorance and prejudice towards foreign cultures. Mrs. Merriweather and Mrs. Farrow then discuss how their African American maids are upset about the outcome of Tom Robinson's trial. The ladies criticize their maids' behavior and comment that Jesus would have never gone around grumbling. Mrs. Merriweather then indirectly criticizes Atticus for defending Tom Robinson by saying,
"I tell you there are some good but misguided people in this town. Good, but misguided. Folks in this town who think they're doing right, I mean" (Lee 142).
Miss Maudie is aware of Mrs. Merriweather's subtle criticism of Atticus and says, "His food doesn't stick going down, does it?" (Lee 142). Scout does not fully comprehend why Maudie is so upset but notices that Aunt Alexandra gives her a look of gratitude. Scout is in awe of Alexandra's subtle acknowledgment and realizes that she will soon enter into the world of women. Miss Merriweather then says that the people living in the North are hypocrites for trying to dismiss their prejudice against African Americans. Scout tries to occupy herself and begins to daydream while Miss Merriweather is talking. Suddenly, Atticus arrives home and interrupts the missionary circle to tell Alexandra and Cal that Tom is dead.