To Kill a Mockingbird Chapter 3 Summary

Instructor: Ann Morris

Ann has taught secondary language arts and has a master's degree in journalism.

In chapter two of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, we witnessed Miss Caroline Fisher inadvertently crushing Scout's high expectations for school. Scout completes her first day of school in chapter three and learns a valuable lesson from her father.

Scout and Walter

Think of the most upstanding, moral person you know. What kind of advice would that person give you if you were quick to criticize? Keep that person in mind as you read chapter three of To Kill a Mockingbird, and answer this question: Is the person you know similar to Atticus Finch in any way? I'll bet your answer will be yes.

Chapter three opens with a scene that shows us just how strong a character our narrator, Scout, is. She is rubbing Walter Cunningham's nose in the dirt and blaming him for getting her in trouble at school. Scout's brother, Jem, orders Scout to let Walter go and then invites the boy to his home for 'dinner,' the term many people at the time used to refer to lunch. Harper Lee uses description to show us, not tell us, what Walter looks like:

'Walter looked as if he had been raised on fish food: his eyes, as blue as Dill Harris's, were red-rimmed and watery. There was no color in his face except at the tip of his nose, which was moistly pink.'

This chapter is heavy with dialogue, or conversations among characters. Not only does the dialogue make the action in the story more entertaining to read, but it also helps us to understand the characters better. And as we will see, this chapter is all about understanding other people.

Excuse me?

Harper Lee uses dialect very effectively. Dialect is the authentic language used by people of a specific area or class. It gives us a feel for exactly how the characters must sound when they speak. It also helps us infer, or figure out, how well educated a character must be.

Walter, for example, reveals his lack of education when he speaks on the way to the Finch house. 'Almost died last year,' he says. 'I come to school and et them pecans - folks say he pizened 'em and put 'em over on the school side of the fence.'

Scout has already told us that Walter is close to Jem's age, which would make him around ten years old. Since he is in the first grade with Scout, we can assume that he has never graduated to the second grade. Walter himself affirms this when he explains to Atticus that he hasn't passed the first grade because he has to help his father every spring and can't spend time in school.

At the dinner table, Walter helps himself to generous portions of meat and vegetables, which suggests that he hasn't eaten a good meal in a long time. The Finch's cook, Calpurnia, offers Walter molasses, and the boy pours it over all of his food. Well, this is too much for Scout. She criticizes Walter's actions and in turn gets a subtle shake of the head from Atticus, but that's nothing compared to Calpurnia's fury.

The Wrath of Calpurnia

Calpurnia disciplined Scout.

Calpurnia quietly asks Scout to join her in the kitchen. Once Scout is in the kitchen, Calpurnia lays into her. Calpurnia explains that some people have unusual eating habits and that Walter is Scout's company and should be treated with respect. As Scout tells us, when Calpurnia gets mad, her grammar starts going downhill. Lee uses dialect again to show this. Calpurnia says:

'There's some folks who don't eat like us, but you ain't called on to contradict 'em at the table when they don't.'

Scout argues with Calpurnia by saying that Walter isn't company because he's just a Cunningham. This makes Calpurnia even angrier, and she tells Scout that if she can't behave she will finish her meal in the kitchen. Harper Lee uses imagery here to help us feel what Scout feels. Imagery is the use of figurative language that helps us sense something using one or more of our five senses. Scout says, 'Calpurnia sent me through the swinging door to the dining room with a stinging smack.' The word 'smack' is an example of onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the sound it represents.

Scout finishes her meal in the kitchen, all the while complaining about Calpurnia's discipline and mildly threatening to commit suicide in retaliation. She concludes her tantrum by pointing out that Calpurnia had already gotten her in trouble once that day by teaching her to write.

Back to School

Jem and Walter head back to school while Scout bends her father's ear for a few minutes. Scout tells Atticus about Calpurnia's treatment of her and is hopeful Atticus will fire Calpurnia. Instead, Atticus explains that Calpurnia's help is vital to the Finch family and that he will never fire her.

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