"If Uncle Atticus lets you run around with stray dogs, that's his own business, like Grandma says, so it ain't your fault. I guess it ain't your fault if Uncle Atticus is a n*****-lover besides, but I'm here to tell you it certainly does mortify the rest of the family-"
"Francis, what the hell do you mean?"
"Just what I said. Grandma says it's bad enough he lets you all run wild, but now he's turned out a n*****-lover we'll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb agin. He's ruinin' the family, that's what he's doin'." (9.96-98)
Family: the world's oldest excuse for telling people what to do. There's no real reason why Atticus's behavior should reflect on anyone but himself and perhaps the parents who raised him, but Aunt Alexandra seems to think it's her business, too. To be fair, given Maycomb's obsession with family, she has a point.
After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myself to a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn't fight any more, her daddy wouldn't let her. This was not entirely correct: I wouldn't fight publicly for Atticus, but the family was private ground. I would fight anyone from a third cousin upwards tooth and nail. Francis Hancock, for example, knew that. (10.6)
Atticus is the same in both public and private, but not Scout—she's willing to toe the line and play it cool with outsiders, but she still fights with her own family. Is Atticus's opinion the only reason, or is there some other difference?
Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was. (13.28)
Scout's definition of "Fine Folks" is based on what their actions are (something they have control over), while Aunt Alexandra's is based on their family history (uh, can't help the crazy cousins). No rags-to-riches stories for her. She wants good solid staying-in-one-place-ness. While Scout's version allows people to get better through individual choice, in Aunt Alexandra's eyes, quality is a function of time more than anything.
There was indeed a caste system in Maycomb, but to my mind it worked this way: the older citizens, the present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time. Thus the dicta No Crawford Minds His Own Business, Every Third Merriweather Is Morbid, The Truth Is Not in the Delafields, All the Bufords Walk Like That, were simply guides to daily living: never take a check from a Delafield without a discreet call to the bank; Miss Maudie Atkinson's shoulder stoops because she was a Buford; if Mrs. Grace Merriweather sips gin out of Lydia E. Pinkham bottles it's nothing unusual—her mother did the same. (13.32)
Family is destiny. Limiting? Sure.There's no way for a person to be different from their parents. But it allows people to indulge themselves without being judged because general opinion is that they can't help themselves.
Atticus's voice was even: "Alexandra, Calpurnia's not leaving this house until she wants to. You may think otherwise, but I couldn't have got along without her all these years. She's a faithful member of this family and you'll simply have to accept things the way they are." (14.28)
Aunt Alexandra's idea of family is exclusive (kick out those who aren't worthy of being counted in), while Atticus's is inclusive. She arranges family by blood, while Atticus considers affection and loyalty. Basically, it boils down to: do you judge a man (or woman) by his birth—or by his life?
"Atticus told me one time that most of this Old Family stuff's foolishness because everybody's family's just as old as everybody else's. I said did that include the colored folks and Englishmen and he said yes."
"Background doesn't mean Old Family," said Jem. "I think it's how long your family's been readin' and writin'. Scout, I've studied this real hard and that's the only reason I can think of. Somewhere along when the Finches were in Egypt one of 'em must have learned a hieroglyphic or two and he taught his boy." Jem laughed. "Imagine Aunty being proud her great-grandaddy could read an' write—ladies pick funny things to be proud of." (23.41-42)
Jem and Scout try to come up with a definition of Aunt Alexandra's mysterious term "background." Literacy isn't a bad approach—literacy means education, which means having a certain class and wealth status. But maybe it's just pride, after all. Maybe it's just knowing that you're better than other people, and coming up with justifications for that after the fact.
Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem)
"Aunty," Jem spoke up, "Atticus says you can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family, an' they're still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge 'em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don't."
"That's your father all over again," said Aunt Alexandra, "and I still say that Jean Louise will not invite Walter Cunningham to this house. If he were her double first cousin once removed he would still not be received in this house unless he comes to see Atticus on business. Now that is that." (23.84-85)
Atticus's and Aunt Alexandra's opinions might appear to have switched up a little—Atticus, as Jem quotes him, says that family is something you can't help, while Aunt Alexandra comes down on the side of choice. But in another sense their views haven't changed. Atticus is still concerned with keeping people in the family, while Aunt Alexandra wants to kick out the unworthy.
"I can't say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he's my brother, and I just want to know when this will ever end." Her voice rose: "It tears him to pieces. He doesn't show it much, but it tears him to pieces." (24.76)
For all Aunt Alexandra says about family in the abstract, she does really care about her actual family members. Aw, she's all right.
I learned more about the poor Mrunas' social life from listening to Mrs. Merriweather: they had so little sense of family that the whole tribe was one big family. A child had as many fathers as there were men in the community, as many mothers as there were women. J. Grimes Everett was doing his utmost to change this state of affairs, and desperately needed our prayers. (27.18)
What's so wrong with this picture of Mruna social life? Apparently it works for them, right? Nope. Major problem: it doesn't involve putting people into neat little categories.
"Heck," Atticus's back was turned. "If this thing's hushed up it'll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I've tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I'm a total failure as a parent, but I'm all they've got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I've tried to live so I can look squarely back at him... if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn't meet his eye, and the day I can't do that I'll know I've lost him. I don't want to lose him and Scout, because they're all I've got." (30.37)
Talk about upsetting the social order: Atticus seems much less concerned with judging his children (as opposed to, say, Bob Ewell) than with how they might judge him. How dependent is Atticus's good behavior on his children? Would he behave differently if they didn't exist? If not, why does he so often refer to them when he's trying to explain to others why he acts like he does?