Aunt Alexandra is the crazy-uptight matriarch of the Finch family. As a woman, she's charged with maintaining her high-class standards in Maycomb society. That means she has "irreconcilable points of view" (3.2) with her more modern niece.
Oh, and she always wears a corset—in the sweltering Alabama heat. (So. Much. Sweat.)
She's so off-putting that Jean Louise "wonder[s] if she has ever really felt anything in her life" (12.15). And you know what? We're not sure. Does society expect her to be this way, or is society like this because she is this way?
She's been living with Atticus ever since Jem died, and she's been trying to get Jean Louise to return home. She isn't doing a good job of it, though, since all they do is argue—over racial issues and class issues. Aunt Alexandra has horrible things to say about low-class Henry, and worse opinions on black people, like the "uppity Yankee N****es" (13.17) who have put ideas into the minds of the "slow Southern ones". And the worst: "Keeping a n***** happy these days is like catering to a king" (13.20).
Blegh. Blegh, blegh, blegh. Not even gallons of Listerine would get the bad taste out of our mouths after reading that.
Alexandra is "an impossible woman" (2.9), according to her brother. We hate to agree with him, because to the racist, misogynistic Atticus, "impossible" and "woman" are synonymous and redundant. Jean Louise turns particularly cold to Aunt Alexandra after her racist outburst. She calls her "pompous" and "narrow-minded" (18.18)…which are both true.
But one of the most shocking moments in the book is when Aunt Alexandra breaks down. Why does she break down? Because Jean Louise is saying something she doesn't believe is true? Or because she knows Jean Louise is right?
Making this moment even more surprising is when Aunt Alexandra says what may be the first positive thing she's said to Jean Louise in her life:
"You're mistaken, Jean Louise, if you think you're no lady." (18.23)
Perhaps Aunt Alexandra, as desperately as she clings to the past, sees Jean Louise as the future.