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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

THE STORY

PART ONE

CHAPTER 9

One day in the schoolyard a boy named Cecil Jacobs announces that Scout Finch's daddy "defended niggers." Knowing only that Cecil obviously intended the remark as an insult, Scout fights back with her fists. When she asks Atticus later about the remark, Scout learns that Cecil was right. Atticus is defending a black man named Tom Robinson who is charged with rape.

At first, her father's involvement with the Tom Robinson case does not mean very much to Scout. She is most upset by Atticus' request that she not get into fights when the other children call Atticus names. From now on, Atticus warns, she is going to hear a lot of criticism of her father, and fighting back will only make matters worse.

Scout keeps her promise not to fight even though other kids in her class at school call her a coward. But during the family Christmas dinner at Finch's Landing, when Scout's prissy cousin Francis calls Atticus a "nigger-lover," Scout can control herself no longer. She punches Francis and calls him a "whore-lady," a term she knows is bad even though she has no idea what it means. Since Scout does not want the adults to know what Francis said, she ends up taking the blame for starting the fight and using bad language, and gets a spanking from her Uncle Jack.


Scout later tells Uncle Jack in private why she thinks the spanking was unjust, and he agrees with her that he doesn't understand children very well. It is only after this that Scout overhears a conversation between her uncle and her father that gives her some hint of just how much trouble lies ahead for the family. Atticus tells Jack that Scout and Jem "will have to absorb some ugly things pretty soon," and he hopes the experience will not leave them bitter. He also says that he hopes they will not catch "Maycomb's usual disease"- that is, bigotry.

You have seen in earlier chapters that Atticus is a wise man who tries to live by high ideals. But perhaps he has also struck you as a cold, withdrawn man who is rather remote from his children's lives. This is certainly what the rest of the Finch family thinks. Aunt Alexandra Finch, especially, accuses Atticus of letting the children run wild and encouraging Scout to turn into an incorrigible tomboy. Here you see that Atticus understands the children better than even they suspect. He purposely lets Scout overhear his conversation with Uncle Jack because he knows that what he has to say will make more of an impression if Scout thinks she is eavesdropping on a conversation that she is not supposed to hear. The trick works. It is only years later that Scout realizes that Atticus meant for her to hear his warning all along.  

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