Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, a sleepy small town similar in many ways to Maycomb, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Atticus Finch, the father of Scout, the narrator and protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s father was a lawyer. Among Lee’s childhood friends was the future novelist and essayist Truman Capote, from whom she drew inspiration for the character Dill. These personal details notwithstanding, Lee maintains that To Kill a Mockingbird was intended to portray not her own childhood home but rather a nonspecific Southern town. “People are people anywhere you put them,” she declared in a 1961 interview.
Yet the book’s setting and characters are not the only aspects of the story shaped by events that occurred during Lee’s childhood. In 1931, when Lee was five, nine young black men were accused of raping two white women near Scottsboro, Alabama. After a series of lengthy, highly publicized, and often bitter trials, five of the nine men were sentenced to long prison terms. Many prominent lawyers and other American citizens saw the sentences as spurious and motivated only by racial prejudice. It was also suspected that the women who had accused the men were lying, and in appeal after appeal, their claims became more dubious. There can be little doubt that the Scottsboro Case, as the trials of the nine men came to be called, served as a seed for the trial that stands at the heart of Lee’s novel.
Lee began To Kill a Mockingbird in the mid-1950s, after moving to New York to become a writer. She completed the novel in 1957 and published it, with revisions, in 1960, just before the peak of the American civil rights movement.
Critical response to To Kill a Mockingbird was mixed: a number of critics found the narrative voice of a nine-year-old girl unconvincing and called the novel overly moralistic. Nevertheless, in the racially charged atmosphere of the early 1960s, the book became an enormous popular success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and selling over fifteen million copies. Two years after the book’s publication, an Academy Award–winning film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, was produced. Meanwhile, the author herself had retreated from the public eye: she avoided interviews, declined to write the screenplay for the film version, and published only a few short pieces after 1961.
In 2015, after many public declarations that she was done writing, Lee published her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. Set twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird and containing many of the same characters, Watchman concerns an adult Scout, who returns to Maycomb to find her father, Atticus, has become a racist anti-integrationist. The novel created a controversy over whether Lee had actually consented to the book’s publication, as well as whether it should have been published at all. Lee died the following year, in 2016, at the age of 89.
Mockingbird remains a staple of high school and college reading lists, beloved by millions of readers worldwide for its appealing depiction of childhood innocence, its scathing moral condemnation of racial prejudice, and its affirmation that human goodness can withstand the assault of evil.
When the chapter opens, Calpurnia is backing through the swinging door, carrying a charlotte (a kind of cake). Aunt Alexandra is hosting her missionary circle's tea party, and Scout, having been left behind by Jem and Dill, gets caught up in the middle of it. After listening to them discuss the plight of the Mrunas, a tribe of Africans living in squalid conditions, she makes the women laugh by saying that she's wearing her britches under her dress. One of the ladies asks her if she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up, but she says she just wants to be a lady, which is a little white lie. The ladies then go back to discussing the Mrunas, as well as a man named J. Grimes Everett, the missionary who's living with the Mrunas.
This somehow leads to a discussion of Tom and how the African Americans in Maycomb reacted to the trial. Some of the missionary women were upset that their servants were sulking afterward. Apparently, their servants' legitimate feelings are an inconvenience to them. Lee uses this fact to illustrate the essential hypocrisy of the missionary circle, which professes to care about the dying people in Africa but treats African Americans like trash back home. One Mrs. Merriweather even says that "some people" (meaning Atticus) have stirred up the African Americans lately, because he thought he was doing the right thing by defending Tom. Mrs. Merriweather disagrees with his actions, and this makes Miss Maudie so mad that she asks if Atticus's food "sticks" when it goes down, meaning that she has some nerve talking about Atticus that way while eating his food and sitting in his house.
Soon after, Atticus comes home with the news that Tom is dead—shot seventeen times while he tried to escape from prison. Atticus asks Calpurnia to come with him to tell Tom's wife the news. Hearing this, Aunt Alexandra breaks down, asking Miss Maudie what more Maycomb expects of him—he's already done what they were too afraid to do, already worried himself sick over Tom's trial. Miss Maudie tries to soothe her by saying they expected great things from him because they respect him, but this doesn't seem like enough. Scout, who wasn't allowed to go with Atticus and Calpurnia, decides that if Aunt Alexandra can go back in and sit with those hypocrites like a lady then she can, too.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 - 1962). Wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady of the United States. She was a very powerful political figure in her own right and would go on to be selected as the First Chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights after leaving the White House. Eleanor was interested in many social issues and fought for equality for African Americans, which is the main reason that Mrs. Merriweather disapproves of her. Lee alludes to Eleanor Roosevelt to suggest to Scout and the reader that even in 1935 there were people fighting for equal rights.
Gender. Gender has been a major theme in this novel. In particular, Scout's refusal to adhere to traditional gender stereotypes and wear dresses has led to conflict with Aunt Alexandra, who thinks that she should act more like a lady. This makes the missionary circle's little gathering especially fraught, because it puts Scout and her mannerisms in the spotlight. There's some tension in the beginning about Scout's behavior, but this is lost in the tragedy of Tom's death. In its aftermath, Scout feels that the appropriate thing to do in that situation is to behave like a lady, which in this context has the same impact as Jem acting like a gentleman (that is, a mature, respectable person).
Hypocrisy. This theme goes hand in hand with racism and has run through the entire novel, becoming most noticeable in those moment where it's clear that African Americans and white people are treated very differently, both in town and by the justice system. In this chapter, hypocrisy is found in the missionary circle, which is composed of ladies who profess to care about poor Africans but then turn around and treat their African American servants with disdain.
Religion. Lee builds on the theme of religion by introducing readers to the ladies of Maycomb's missionary circle. Like the religious community at First Purchase, the circle is typically exclusive to a single race, is interested in charity work, and upholds the social and the moral values of its community. Unlike First Purchase, however, the circle is hypocritical, judgmental, and self-important, and its primary goal appears to be self-preservation rather than religious devotion. Lee uses this chapter to draw a comparison between the missionary circle and First Purchase and show the reader how hypocritical Maycomb can be.
Respect. In Chapters 21 and 22, we saw the great depths of the African American community's respect for Atticus when they stood up for him as he passed and when they left him gifts on the back steps to thank him for defending Tom. In this chapter, we can see that at least some of the white citizens of Maycomb also have a great deal of respect for Atticus, because they entrusted him and no one else with Tom's defense. Miss Maudie says that this is a sign of their esteem, but Aunt Alexandra and Scout don't think this is enough.