About the Dog

But I must have been reasonably awake, or I would not have received the impression that was creeping into me. It was not unlike one I had last winter, and I shivered, though the night was hot. The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley place. A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

I thought I was done writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, but a colleague recently asked me a question about the dog.

Tim Johnson, I mean: the rabid dog that Atticus shoots in Chapter 10.

Sometimes Chapter 10—the mad dog chapter—is anthologized as a stand-alone short story. In that case, it’s a lovely piece about a boy coming to see his father as a hero. Chapter 11 isn’t accorded the same status—I don’t see it ever as a stand-alone—but these two chapters, which seem to most students at first read to be unrelated to either the Boo Radley story or the Tom Robinson story are, I contend, the two most important chapters in the book. In them, Harper Lee lays the groundwork for the major themes of the novel, and the story of Atticus shooting the dog does more than round out his character by giving us some background information on his “talent.” It establishes him for certain as the hero of the story: an epic hero, to be precise. The Mrs. Dubose chapter gives us the hero’s own definition of courage.

But back to the dog.

Tim Johnson is very much a character in this story. His name is the first clue. He’s not Spot or Old Blue or Rover or any other identifiable dog name. He’s Tim Johnson. A human’s name.

That Atticus kills him is the second clue that he’s important.

Tim Johnson is lurching down the street on a cold February morning. Calpurnia summons the sheriff in a frantic phone call, herds the children inside, and defies common sense and convention by running up on the Radley’s front porch to warn the occupants not to open their door. A mad dog is coming.

photo of rabies notesThe day before we discuss Chapter 10 in class, my homework assignment is for students to look up “rabies” online and write down its causes, its symptoms, and its treatment. The next day, we brainstorm all of that on the board.

The key thing is this: Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system, a disease of the mind. It makes the dog (or person) who has it irrational, unpredictable, and erratic. The victim will attack anything in its path. Rabies spreads by a bite—by mouth—and the treatment is painful. Treated too late, the disease is fatal.

For a dog as far gone as Tim Johnson, the only thing to do is to shootphoto 2 of rabies notes him. And that is what Atticus does. He stands in the middle of a deserted street, takes aim, fires, and the dog falls over, dead.

Like all epic heroes, though, Atticus is reluctant to undertake this task; he steps in only because no one else can or will. Heck Tate relies on Atticus to do the job because, as we (along with Jem and Scout) find out, Atticus was called “Ol’ One Shot” when he was a boy.

At this point, I just let that information sink in and we go on to Chapter 11. Here we learn that Atticus thinks the vitriolic Mrs. Dubose is the “bravest lady he ever knew.” She fights a morphine addiction so she can die free and clear. No need for that. She’s going to die, so who cares if she’s addicted? Atticus says she’s brave because “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

This is all groundwork for the trial. Established beyond a doubt as the hero of the book, we now want to know, will our hero live up to his own definition of courage in the second half of the book? And what about that dog? What does Tim Johnson represent?

Occasionally, an alert student will remember that Atticus referred to “Maycomb’s usual disease” when he was talking to his brother, Jack—and that we all read “prejudice” into that remark. Once in a great while, a student will remember (or the teacher–that would be me–will recall) the description in Chapter 5 of Miss Maudie vehemently attacking the nut- grass in her yard, telling the children that “one sprig of nut-grass can ruin a whole yard.” The wind, she said, would spread the seed all over Maycomb County—an occurrence that would resemble an “Old Testament pestilence.”

If they do remember this early groundwork, that reinforces the unmistakable connection students make when Bob Ewell takes the stand in Part II of the novel. Irrational, unpredictable, and erratic, Bob spews his verbal venom on Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell’s target and the only witness to Bob Ewell’s vicious response when he sees her through the window, accosting Robinson. Rabies, of course, is meant to represent prejudice…

“And Bob’s the mad dog!” I usually don’t need to draw the analogy myself. The students get it.

Atticus knows how the trial will end before it even begins—but he goes forward with his defense of Tom anyway. Why?

Because he must.

He’s already explained that to his brother Jack. It’s the right thing to do, but he runs the risk of his children being morally injured—the trial and the vitriol may be so hard on them that they’ll be resentful and catch the disease. But if he doesn’t do the right thing, he tells Jack, he couldn’t look his children in the eye. So it’s at great personal risk—typical of the epic hero—that he steps forward to do what heroes do.

And why does Ewell bring charges against Tom? Tom isn’t going to report him. No way. So why does Ewell do it?

Because he can.

Prejudice has completely consumed him.

Prejudice has so poisoned the town (except for a few souls like Atticus, Miss Maudie, and we later discover, Judge Taylor and Heck Tate) that Ewell seizes his opportunity to attack Tom. He knows full well that Tom will be convicted. For once in his life, Ewell thinks, he will be the recipient of the town’s gratitude and be “one up” on his moral superior, the black man who lives down the road.

Except that, when the trial is over, the town despises Ewell all the more. The people know the truth, even though the men on the jury convict Tom. Except for a Cunningham who makes the jury deliberate for a few hours—a record for a case like this in the 1930s—the men on the jury are, after all, only men. They’ve been infected, too, and can’t see beyond society’s unwritten black and white rules.

Just as Atticus is only a man. He lifts the gun in the courtroom, fires—and misses. But everyone knows the truth. He has made them know it.

Mayella is shamed, Ewell is despised even more, Atticus is sickened, and Jem learns a bitter truth: The justice system he idealizes is flawed. An innocent man has been convicted. Even his father, whom he idolizes by now, can’t make things right. With this loss of innocence, Jem comes of age.

A lot is being said about close reading these days, and that’s exactly the way all this about mad dogs—and later about mockingbirds—is revealed. With that and some carefully placed questions. I don’t lecture—that’s not my style and not my forte. But we read and reread, the students and I, and through that process, from all corners of the room, comes the understanding that the dog and Bob Ewell are inextricably linked, that the two episodes are meant to be compared.

A single, strangely-constructed sentence seals it: A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

So about the dog…

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