Summary of Part I (Chapters 1-3)
Part I focuses on Jean Louise Finch (Scout)’s return to Maycomb County to see her father, Atticus, whose health is ailing. Jean Louise has been living and working in New York. The story’s first chapter opens to her midway in her train travels, choosing to travel by this method because it would be easier on her father. She reflects on what Maycomb, in relation to her New Yorker life now, means to her. She notes that there are more and more TV antennae on the houses of the blacks down here in the South, which makes her smile. Jean Louise has some funny troubles on the train: she accidentally locks herself against the wall with her train cot. She is fascinated by the new mechanisms of the train, such as pushing a button to call for service.
Upon arriving at the station, the conductor, though a stranger, pulls an old trick on her by pretending to speed past Maycomb station, and then stopping to say that he almost forgot. Jean Louise does not find this particularly funny, and disembarks.
Upon disembarking, a young man, her “boyfriend,” Henry Clinton, picks up Jean Louise and kisses her publicly. Jean Louise objects to this public display of affection. On the way back home, they banter in the car. It is revealed that they have been together for a while, and that Henry has basically become Atticus’s new son after Jem Finch’s death two years ago. Henry grew up with the Finches, right across the street, and fell head over heels for Jean Louise. He constantly brings up the topic of marriage, but she insists that she wants to hold off, that she wants to “play until she is thirty” (12). Jean Louise reflects that she has always been and still is often a tomboy, but Henry found something feminine enough about her with which to fall in love.
They arrive home to see Atticus, who now has rheumatoid arthritis. However, Atticus is still as stubborn as ever and only lets people help him up to a certain extent. While waiting for Jean Louise and Henry, he reads a case study on a music stand while his sister, Alexandra Finch, stresses out over the fact that Jean Louise and Henry are not back yet. Atticus is amused and not worried. Although mildly irritated by his sister’s constant worrying, he prefers this to his daughter’s lack of staying still when miserable, saying that Jean Louise “prowled” when she was miserable (18).
Jean Louise and Henry come back to the house and they discuss the death of Cousin Edgar’s son, who accidentally drank too much one afternoon after football practice. They talk about other small town happenings, like the divorce of the Merriweathers, and then Aunt Alexandra begins to comment on Jean Louise’s dress and appearance.
Aunt Alexandra and Jean Louise do not get along. She and Jean Louise are almost always bickering with each other. Alexandra is an imposing woman, and dresses very traditionally. Having lived her entire life down in Maycomb, Alexandra is “technically” married and has been for thirty-three years, but she and her husband have been separated ever since he refused to come home one day from down the river.
The last time Jean Louise and Aunt Alexandra had a major argument was over Jean Louise’s return for Jem’s funeral. They have a skirmish again this time when Jean Louise brings up the idea of marrying Hank (Henry) to her aunt. Her aunt calls Henry “rednecked white trash” (36), and insists that Jean Louise cannot marry him. Despite all of this and Jean Louise’s fierce temper and independence, she feels an indebtedness and tenderness to her aunt, whom she feels she cannot repay for agreeing to move in with and take care of Atticus. Jean Louise stops to see her father as he is reading the newspaper in the evening, and then Hank arrives to take her on a dinner date.
Analysis of Part I (Chapters 1-3)
The author’s choice of breaking the story into clear parts is set up in this first “Part.” Part I explores Jean Louise’s actual, immediate return to Maycomb County and how she settles in. This part introduces the important characters to come in the rest of the novel. The section begins in the middle of Jean Louise’s travels, and immediately sets up the progressive attitude that characterizes her for the rest of the story; even coming back to the Deep South, she “grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose” (3).
This is not an attitude shared by most of her family or neighbors in Maycomb. This imagery, and the power of sight as related to seeing the truth and telling the truth, is set up early as a major motif and even theme—Jean Louise thinks about her father’s eyes when her Aunt Alexandra starts on one of her lectures: “Jean Louise sometimes thought she detected an unmistakably profane glint in Atticus Finch’s eyes, or was it merely the light hitting his glasses? She never knew” (6). Jean Louise will realize there is a lot about her family she does not know. She finds out that Maycomb has also changed since she was a child, and finds it annoying that the conductor plays a silly trick on her, saying that “Trains changed; conductors never did” (7).
Jean Louise’s back-and-forth relationship with her childhood friend and now suitor Henry Clinton is a reflection of the role that law, words, and stories play in her life and her father Atticus’s life; Hank, who is training to be a lawyer with Atticus, carries an old scar from the war with a story that changes every time Jean Louise teases him about it. Lee also uses Henry and Jean Louise’s relationship to interrogate questions about gender roles and what it means for a woman to marry. Readers who have To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) in the back of their minds no doubt will remember that the case at hand in TKAM was a rape case; in the Deep South, not only are race and class issues of discussion, but gender is a relevant factor in prejudice as well.
A large portion of Chapter 3 (pp. 26-39) is used to describe Aunt Alexandra and Jean Louise’s perception of her; the chapter opens by saying, “Alexandra Finch Hancock was imposing from any angle; her behind was no less uncompromising than her front” (26), and continues to delineate her argumentative and disagreeable history with Jean Louise; the two women hardly ever see eye to eye. However, Jean Louise feels that she owes something to Aunt Alexandra for coming to stay with Atticus in his poor health; this sense of obligation, as well as responsibility and duty, is something that fuels Jean Louise’s everyday encounters. It also motivates the decisions she makes, especially now back in Maycomb.
Responsibility and duty are lastly and finally tied into the discussions of gender and race - that is, into questions of what men and women should or should not do in a society, and what different races should or should not do. During their discussions at home, the family also discusses the movements of the NAACP, and how Civil Rights activism is breaking up the barriers of perceived social responsibilities, much to the discomfort of those comfortable in their current positions.