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What is the significance of the mad dog episode to the novel as a whole?
The mad dog episode, found in chapter 10 of the novel, bears particular significance to many of the key themes of
`To Kill a Mockingbird'. Firstly, the scene highlights Atticus' underlying compassion as he strives to kill the dog with just
one shot to minimise its suffering: `He [Tim Johnson] didn't know what hit him.' This understanding provides a link
back to Atticus' earlier views: `You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin'. Both Atticus and the
community recognise the need to kill the dog swiftly and `"One-Shot Finch'" is the man for the job: `" Mr. Finch, this is
a one-shot job"'.
It is clear that this scene links into the main trial of the novel. In both cases, Atticus is forced to do something he
doesn't really want to do: `" Don't waste time Heck," said Atticus "Go on."' Here, Atticus' persistence in making Heck
shoot underlines his fear of having to undertake the task himself: "' Don't just stand there Heck! He won't wait all day
for you-"' However, as with the trail, Atticus' conscience and sense of moral righteousness prevents him from holding
out for longer and he eventually takes up the challenge.
Several other links can also be found to the trial such as Atticus' poorly functioning left eye and Tom's wounded left
arm. In both cases, the afflictions are not as terrible as they first appear; Tom's arm is a key factor in swaying
suspicion away from him in the court case and Atticus' eye doesn't affect his talented shooting skills. Also, in this
episode, Atticus defends the innocent town from madness which links into the trial where he must defend an
innocent man from the madness of the town.
Perhaps most obvious is the children's change in opinion of Atticus; before the episode, Atticus is described as
`feeble' and although he is `nearly fifty' he makes no attempt to deny that he is old: `When Jem and I asked him why
he was so old he said he got started late which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness'. Scout and Jem draw
constant comparisons between Atticus and the parents of their friends: `He was much older than the parents of our
school contemporaries'. The children are aware that Atticus is not the typical southern gentleman: `he never went
hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the living room and read.' In this case, the children
think of these attributes of Atticus' character as boring and undesirable. Jem and Scout are unaware of their father's
importance: `Our father didn't do anything' and they would prefer him to follow a less illustrious career, instead
opting for something more manly such as driving dump-trucks, farming or working in garages. Scout would prefer
excitement rather than virtue: `I wished my father was a devil from hell'. Most importantly, the children are convinced
Atticus can't shoot just because he won't teach them: `"Take him Mr. Finch." Mr. Tate handed the rifle to Atticus; Jem
and I nearly fainted.'
During the scene `Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped them in the street'.
This represents the loss of Atticus' feeble and aged exterior for the children and marks the start of their new-found
admiration. After the incident, Miss. Maudie Atkinson asks Scout: `" still think your father can't do anything? Still
ashamed of him?" "Nome," I [Scout] said meekly.' Jem discovers that there is more to a character than a manly
exterior: `" Atticus is real old but I wouldn't care if he couldn't do anything I wouldn't care if he couldn't do a blessed
thing!"' This represents the change in the opinion of Scout and Jem as a direct result of the mad dog scene.
Overall, aside from providing links to the main trial and to the underlying themes of `To Kill a Mockingbird', the mad
dog scene in chapter 10 provides the turning point in the children's opinion of Atticus and an important new-found
respect that plays a vital part in their loyalty to him during the trial.