To Kill a Mockingbird
Scout and Jem Finch are growing up in the tired old Alabama town of Maycomb. Their father, Atticus, is the local lawyer and as a single parent tries to raise his children with honor and respect to their individualism. With the Depression on times are hard, and there is no money to be found anywhere in town.
To amuse themselves Scout, Jem, and their best friend Dill begin a relentless campaign during their summertimes to get Boo Radley, their reclusive, legendary neighbor, to come out of his house. They concoct endless schemes and even go so far as to create a play that details Boo's life. Atticus forbids them to have anything to do with Mr. Radley, urging them to let the poor man be.
Atticus is a good man, and one day takes on a case that affects him personally. A black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of beating and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Most of the county is convinced immediately that Tom is guilty of the crime, and begin to look at Atticus in a very negative way for actually defending him and trying to do right by him. Scout and Jem begin to get tormented over their father at school, and Atticus begs them not to get riled up over the town's prejudice.
As the trial begins it becomes apparent to Scout and Jem that there is no way that Tom Robinson could have beaten and raped Mayella Ewell, as his left hand is crippled. Atticus proves that to the jury, and Scout and Jem are astonished when Tom is slapped with a guilty verdict anyway. They begin to realize that many people in town are very prejudiced against blacks, and their hearts are saddened by it. It is hard for them to understand how people can be so mean to each other, and they both begin to see that, even in court where things are supposed to be unbiased, men's hearts bring in their own hatreds.
It isn't much longer that Tom is shot and killed for trying to escape while in prison. Jem especially takes the whole affair hard, and it takes him a long time to come to grips with the jury's decision, and Tom's death.
After the trial has died down Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, begins threatening Atticus for embarrassing him in court, and resolves that he'll get him back one way or another. Atticus is convinced that he's all talk, and passes it off as such.
Time crawls past, and finally Bob Ewell is good to his word and attacks the children Halloween night with a knife. He breaks Jem's arm and almost kills Scout, but Boo Radley, of all people, comes to their rescue and saves them. The sheriff, Heck Tate, hushes the whole thing over so Boo Radley will not be dragged into the spotlight, and Scout is thrilled to finally get to meet the man they for so long fantasized about. As she walks him back home, she realizes that all this time he was watching them from his front porch windows, and just for a little while she is able to stand in his shoes.
Jean Louise “Scout” Finch - The narrator and protagonist of the story. Scout lives with her father, Atticus, her brother, Jem, and their black cook, Calpurnia, in Maycomb. She is intelligent and, by the standards of her time and place, a tomboy. Scout has a combative streak and a basic faith in the goodness of the people in her community. As the novel progresses, this faith is tested by the hatred and prejudice that emerge during Tom Robinson's trial. Scout eventually develops a more grown-up perspective that enables her to appreciate human goodness without ignoring human evil. Scout (In-Depth Analysis)
Atticus Finch - Scout and Jem's father, a lawyer in Maycomb descended from an old local family. A widower with a dry sense of humor, Atticus has instilled in his children his strong sense of morality and justice. He is one of the few residents of Maycomb committed to racial equality. When he agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman, he exposes himself and his family to the anger of the white community. With his strongly held convictions, wisdom, and empathy, Atticus functions as the novel's moral backbone. Atticus (In-Depth Analysis)
Jeremy Atticus “Jem” Finch - Scout's brother and constant playmate at the beginning of the story. Jem is something of a typical American boy, refusing to back down from dares and fantasizing about playing football. Four years older than Scout, he gradually separates himself from her games, but he remains her close companion and protector throughout the novel. Jem moves into adolescence during the story, and his ideals are shaken badly by the evil and injustice that he perceives during the trial of Tom Robinson. Jem (In-Depth Analysis)
Arthur “Boo” Radley - A recluse who never sets foot outside his house, Boo dominates the imaginations of Jem, Scout, and Dill. He is a powerful symbol of goodness swathed in an initial shroud of creepiness, leaving little presents for Scout and Jem and emerging at an opportune moment to save the children. An intelligent child emotionally damaged by his cruel father, Boo provides an example of the threat that evil poses to innocence and goodness. He is one of the novel's “mockingbirds,” a good person injured by the evil of mankind.
Bob Ewell - A drunken, mostly unemployed member of Maycomb's poorest family. In his knowingly wrongful accusation that Tom Robinson raped his daughter, Ewell represents the dark side of the South: ignorance, poverty, squalor, and hate-filled racial prejudice.
Charles Baker “Dill” Harris - Jem and Scout's summer neighbor and friend. Dill is a diminutive, confident boy with an active imagination. He becomes fascinated with Boo Radley and represents the perspective of childhood innocence throughout the novel.
Miss Maudie Atkinson - The Finches' neighbor, a sharp-tongued widow, and an old friend of the family. Miss Maudie is almost the same age as Atticus's younger brother, Jack. She shares Atticus's passion for justice and is the children's best friend among Maycomb's adults.
Calpurnia - The Finches' black cook. Calpurnia is a stern disciplinarian and the children's bridge between the white world and her own black community.
Aunt Alexandra - Atticus's sister, a strong-willed woman with a fierce devotion to her family. Alexandra is the perfect Southern lady, and her commitment to propriety and tradition often leads her to clash with Scout.
Mayella Ewell - Bob Ewell's abused, lonely, unhappy daughter. Though one can pity Mayella because of her overbearing father, one cannot pardon her for her shameful indictment of Tom Robinson.
Tom Robinson - The black field hand accused of rape. Tom is one of the novel's “mockingbirds,” an important symbol of innocence destroyed by evil.
Link Deas - Tom Robinson's employer. In his willingness to look past race and praise the integrity of Tom's character, Deas epitomizes the opposite of prejudice.
Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose - An elderly, ill-tempered, racist woman who lives near the Finches. Although Jem believes that Mrs. Dubose is a thoroughly bad woman, Atticus admires her for the courage with which she battles her morphine addiction.
Nathan Radley - Boo Radley's older brother. Scout thinks that Nathan is similar to the deceased Mr. Radley, Boo and Nathan's father. Nathan cruelly cuts off an important element of Boo's relationship with Jem and Scout when he plugs up the knothole in which Boo leaves presents for the children.
Heck Tate - The sheriff of Maycomb and a major witness at Tom Robinson's trial. Heck is a decent man who tries to protect the innocent from danger.
Mr. Underwood - The publisher of Maycomb's newspaper. Mr. Underwood respects Atticus and proves his ally.
Mr. Dolphu Raymond - A wealthy white man who lives with his black mistress and mulatto children. Raymond pretends to be a drunk so that the citizens of Maycomb will have an explanation for his behavior. In reality, he is simply jaded by the hypocrisy of white society and prefers living among blacks.
Mr. Walter Cunningham - A poor farmer and part of the mob that seeks to lynch Tom Robinson at the jail. Mr. Walter Cunningham displays his human goodness when Scout's politeness compels him to disperse the men at the jail.
Walter Cunningham - Son of Mr. Walter Cunningham and classmate of Scout. Walter cannot afford lunch one day at school and accidentally gets Scout in trouble.
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
Part One, Chapter 1
The story is narrated by a young girl named Jean Louise Finch, who is almost always called by her nickname, Scout. Scout starts to explain the circumstances that led to the broken arm that her older brother, Jem, sustained many years earlier; she begins by recounting her family history. The first of her ancestors to come to America was a fur-trader and apothecary named Simon Finch, who fled England to escape religious persecution and established a successful farm on the banks of the Alabama River. The farm, called Finch's Landing, supported the family for many years. The first Finches to make a living away from the farm were Scout's father, Atticus Finch, who became a lawyer in the nearby town of Maycomb, and his brother, Jack Finch, who went to medical school in Boston. Their sister, Alexandra Finch, stayed to run the Landing.
A successful lawyer, Atticus makes a solid living in Maycomb, a tired, poor, old town in the grips of the Great Depression. He lives with Jem and Scout on Maycomb's main residential street. Their cook, an old black woman named Calpurnia, helps to raise the children and keep the house. Atticus's wife died when Scout was two, so she does not remember her mother well. But Jem, four years older than Scout, has memories of their mother that sometimes make him unhappy.
In the summer of 1933, when Jem is nearly ten and Scout almost six, a peculiar boy named Charles Baker Harris moves in next door. The boy, who calls himself Dill, stays for the summer with his aunt, Miss Rachel Haverford, who owns the house next to the Finches'. Dill doesn't like to discuss his father's absence from his life, but he is otherwise a talkative and extremely intelligent boy who quickly becomes the Finch children's chief playmate. All summer, the three act out various stories that they have read. When they grow bored of this activity, Dill suggests that they attempt to lure Boo Radley, a mysterious neighbor, out of his house.
Arthur “Boo” Radley lives in the run-down Radley Place, and no one has seen him outside it in years. Scout recounts how, as a boy, Boo got in trouble with the law and his father imprisoned him in the house as punishment. He was not heard from until fifteen years later, when he stabbed his father with a pair of scissors. Although people suggested that Boo was crazy, old Mr. Radley refused to have his son committed to an asylum. When the old man died, Boo's brother, Nathan, came to live in the house with Boo. Nevertheless, Boo continued to stay inside.
Dill is fascinated by Boo and tries to convince the Finch children to help him lure this phantom of Maycomb outside. Eventually, he dares Jem to run over and touch the house. Jem does so, sprinting back hastily; there is no sign of movement at the Radley Place, although Scout thinks that she sees a shutter move slightly, as if someone were peeking out.
There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
(See Important Quotations Explained) The story that constitutes almost the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the time between Scout Finch's fifth and ninth birthdays, but Scout presumably commences the first-person narrative that opens the novel much later in her life. As a result, the narrative voice fluctuates between the child's point of view, chronicling the events as they happen, and the adult voice, looking back on her childhood many years later. The child's naïve voice dominates the central plot, allowing the reader to make connections and understand events in a way that the young Scout does not. At the same time, the narrative often digresses into anecdotes or descriptions presented retrospectively, like Scout's depiction of Maycomb in the first chapter: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. . . . Somehow, it was hotter then . . . [p]eople moved slowly then.” Here, Lee's language indicates an adult's recollection rather than a girl's experience.
Structurally, To Kill a Mockingbird is circular: the story begins where it ends. The first line of the novel introduces Jem's broken arm, and the novel then flashes back to cover the events leading up to his accident. The narrator uses this device to provide background for the Finch family, introducing the legendary Simon Finch and his three descendants. But at this stage of the novel, the family history is treated as background information, of secondary importance to the private world of the young Finch children. In this way, the first chapter provides only a brief sketch of Atticus, whose importance increases as the novel progresses. Jem and Scout are the center of the story, filling it with their world of imagination and superstition, centered on town myths such as the curious history of Boo Radley and imaginative diversions such as acting out stories from books.
Dill dominates this early part of the novel: he is only a summer visitor, with no connection to Maycomb's adult world. As this adult world asserts itself later in the novel, Dill fades from the story. For now, however, the novel appropriates Dill's childhood perspective and only hints at the darker, more adult problems that will intrude on Jem and Scout. One of the central themes of To Kill a Mockingbird is the process of growing up and developing a more mature perspective on life. Correspondingly, the narrative gradually comes to mirror a loss of innocence, as the carefree childhood of this first chapter is slowly replaced by a darker, more dangerous, and more cynical adult story in which the children are only minor participants.
Boo Radley becomes the focus of the children's curiosity in Chapter 1. As befits the perspective of childhood innocence, the recluse is given no identity apart from the youthful superstitions that surround him: Scout describes him as a “malevolent phantom” over six feet tall who eats squirrels and cats. Of course, the reader realizes that there must be more to Boo's story than these superstitions imply. Eventually, Boo will be transformed from a nightmare villain into a human being, and the children's understanding of him will reflect their own journey toward adulthood.
Summary: Chapter 2
September arrives, and Dill leaves Maycomb to return to the town of Meridian. Scout, meanwhile, prepares to go to school for the first time, an event that she has been eagerly anticipating. Once she is finally at school, however, she finds that her teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, deals poorly with children. When Miss Caroline concludes that Atticus must have taught Scout to read, she becomes very displeased and makes Scout feel guilty for being educated. At recess, Scout complains to Jem, but Jem says that Miss Caroline is just trying out a new method of teaching.
Miss Caroline and Scout get along badly in the afternoon as well. Walter Cunningham, a boy in Scout's class, has not brought a lunch. Miss Caroline offers him a quarter to buy lunch, telling him that he can pay her back tomorrow. Walter's family is large and poor—so poor that they pay Atticus with hickory nuts, turnip greens, or other goods when they need legal help—and Walter will never be able to pay the teacher back or bring a lunch to school. When Scout attempts to explain these circumstances, however, Miss Caroline fails to understand and grows so frustrated that she slaps Scout's hand with a ruler.
Summary: Chapter 3
At lunch, Scout rubs Walter's nose in the dirt for getting her in trouble, but Jem intervenes and invites Walter to lunch (in the novel, as in certain regions of the country, the midday meal is called “dinner”). At the Finch house, Walter and Atticus discuss farm conditions “like two men,” and Walter puts molasses all over his meat and vegetables, to Scout's horror. When she criticizes Walter, however, Calpurnia calls her into the kitchen to scold her and slaps her as she returns to the dining room, telling her to be a better hostess. Back at school, Miss Caroline becomes terrified when a tiny bug, or “cootie,” crawls out of a boy's hair. The boy is Burris Ewell, a member of the Ewell clan, which is even poorer and less respectable than the Cunningham clan. In fact, Burris only comes to school the first day of every school year, making a token appearance to avoid trouble with the law. He leaves the classroom, making enough vicious remarks to cause the teacher to cry.
At home, Atticus follows Scout outside to ask her if something is wrong, to which she responds that she is not feeling well. She tells him that she does not think she will go to school anymore and suggests that he could teach her himself. Atticus replies that the law demands that she go to school, but he promises to keep reading to her, as long as she does not tell her teacher about it.
You never really understand a person until you . . . climb into his skin and walk around in it.
(See Important Quotations Explained) Analysis: Chapters 2–3
Scout's unpleasant first day of school has a threefold purpose: it locates the reader's sympathies firmly with the narrator; it offers a further introduction to Maycomb's tortured social ladder; and it provides sharp social commentary on the theme of children and education, one of the book's most important themes. In her interactions with Miss Caroline, Scout is victimized by her teacher's inexperience; Scout means well but receives only punishment in return. The rigid, impersonal protocols demanded by the law and by Miss Caroline's method of teaching are shown to be insufficient and irrational—Burris Ewell can keep the law happy by coming to school only one day a year, while Scout incurs her teacher's wrath simply by learning to read at an early age. This topsy-turvy educational outlook fails catastrophically to meet the needs of either student. Scout, who is commonsensical enough to perceive this failure immediately, is frustrated by her inability to understand why her teacher acts as she does, and why she, Scout, continually incurs disfavor for well-intentioned actions.
Throughout these chapters, Scout's well-meaning missteps (telling the teacher about Walter's poverty, criticizing Walter for putting molasses on his meat and vegetables) earn harsh rebukes from the adult world, emphasizing the contrast between the comfortable, imaginative childhood world that Scout occupies in Chapter 1 and the more grown-up world she is now expected to occupy. This interaction sets a pattern for the book and for the basic development of Scout as a character: whether dealing with adults or with other children, Scout always means well, and her nature is essentially good. Her mistakes are honest mistakes, and while there is evil all around her in the novel, it does not infect her, nor does injustice disillusion her, as it does Jem. At the end of Chapter 2, Scout, acting on her best intentions (as always), tries to explain the Cunninghams to Miss Caroline.
Young Walter Cunningham is the first glimpse we get of the Cunningham clan, part of the large population of poor farmers in the land around Maycomb. Walter's poverty introduces the very adult theme of social class into the novel. Scout notes in Chapter 1 that Maycomb was a run-down town caught up in the Great Depression, but so far, we have seen only the upper-class side of town, represented by relatively successful and comfortable characters such as Atticus. Now, however, we begin to see the rest of Maycomb, represented by the struggling Cunninghams and the dirt-poor Ewells. Jem later divides Maycomb into four social classes, placing the Cunninghams a level beneath the other families in the town (Walter's fondness for molasses on all of his food illustrates the difference in status between his family and the Finches).
A correlation between social status and moral goodness becomes evident as the novel progresses. At the top of this pyramid rests Atticus, a comparatively wealthy man whose moral standing is beyond reproach. Beneath him are the poor farmers such as the Cunninghams. The Ewells are below even the Cunninghams on the social ladder, and their unapologetic, squalid ignorance and ill tempers quickly make them the villains of the story. We do not encounter them again until Part Two, but Burris's vicious cruelty in this section foreshadows the later behavior of his father, Bob Ewell.
Miss Caroline's teaching methods, meanwhile, facilitate Lee's subtle critique of educational orthodoxy. Miss Caroline cannot accept that Scout already knows how to read and write, because it confounds the teaching formula that she has been taught to implement. She adheres strictly to a “method” that she learned from adults, instead of learning from her experiences in the classroom and adapting her teaching accordingly. To Scout, this method is dull; to the reader, it exemplifies how well-meaning but rigid thinking can fail. Just as Atticus encourages Scout to place herself in another person's position before she judges that person, Miss Caroline would do better to try to think like her students and respond to their needs rather than simply trying to impose an external system on their education. Throughout the novel, Atticus's moral position of sympathy and understanding is contrasted with rigid, impersonal systems such as Miss Caroline's that fail to account for individual necessities. In this sense, Miss Caroline's behavior in the schoolhouse foreshadows the courtroom scenes later in the novel, when the system that fails is not an educational technique but the law.
Summary: Chapter 4
The rest of the school year passes grimly for Scout, who endures a curriculum that moves too slowly and leaves her constantly frustrated in class. After school one day, she passes the Radley Place and sees some tinfoil sticking out of a knothole in one of the Radleys' oak trees. Scout reaches into the knothole and discovers two pieces of chewing gum. She chews both pieces and tells Jem about it. He panics and makes her spit it out. On the last day of school, however, they find two old “Indian-head” pennies hidden in the same knothole where Scout found the gum and decide to keep them.
Summer comes at last, school ends, and Dill returns to Maycomb. He, Scout, and Jem begin their games again. One of the first things they do is roll one another inside an old tire. On Scout's turn, she rolls in front of the Radley steps, and Jem and Scout panic. However, this incident gives Jem the idea for their next game: they will play “Boo Radley.” As the summer passes, their game becomes more complicated, until they are acting out an entire Radley family melodrama. Eventually, however, Atticus catches them and asks if their game has anything to do with the Radleys. Jem lies, and Atticus goes back into the house. The kids wonder if it's safe to play their game anymore.
Summary: Chapter 5
Jem and Dill grow closer, and Scout begins to feel left out of their friendship. As a result, she starts spending much of her time with one of their neighbors: Miss Maudie Atkinson, a widow with a talent for gardening and cake baking who was a childhood friend of Atticus's brother, Jack. She tells Scout that Boo Radley is still alive and it is her theory Boo is the victim of a harsh father (now deceased), a “foot-washing” Baptist who believed that most people are going to hell. Miss Maudie adds that Boo was always polite and friendly as a child. She says that most of the rumors about him are false, but that if he wasn't crazy as a boy, he probably is by now.
Meanwhile, Jem and Dill plan to give a note to Boo inviting him out to get ice cream with them. They try to stick the note in a window of the Radley Place with a fishing pole, but Atticus catches them and orders them to “stop tormenting that man” with either notes or the “Boo Radley” game.
Summary: Chapter 6
Jem and Dill obey Atticus until Dill's last day in Maycomb, when he and Jem plan to sneak over to the Radley Place and peek in through a loose shutter. Scout accompanies them, and they creep around the house, peering in through various windows. Suddenly, they see the shadow of a man with a hat on and flee, hearing a shotgun go off behind them. They escape under the fence by the schoolyard, but Jem's pants get caught on the fence, and he has to kick them off in order to free himself.
The children return home, where they encounter a collection of neighborhood adults, including Atticus, Miss Maudie, and Miss Stephanie Crawford, the neighborhood gossip. Miss Maudie informs them that Mr. Nathan Radley shot at “a Negro” in his yard. Miss Stephanie adds that Mr. Radley is waiting outside with his gun so he can shoot at the next sound he hears. When Atticus asks Jem where his pants are, Dill interjects that he won Jem's pants in a game of strip poker. Alarmed, Atticus asks them if they were playing cards. Jem responds that they were just playing with matches. Late that night, Jem sneaks out to the Radley Place, and retrieves his pants.
Analysis: Chapters 4–6
These chapters serve primarily as a record of Jem and Scout's childhood adventures with Dill and the specter of Boo Radley. Even as the children play the “Radley game,” make their attempts to give a message to Boo, and peek through his shutters, Boo's character is transformed from a monster into a human being. Although Boo's relevance to the main plot of the novel is still unknown, the compelling human story that these chapters weave around Boo keeps the reader interested in him, even if he serves only as a diversion to the young Finch children at this point.
Boo makes his presence felt in these chapters in a number of ways. First, the presents begin to appear in the Radley tree, and, though Scout does not realize who has been putting them there, the reader can easily guess that it is Boo. Second, Miss Maudie offers insight into the origins of Boo's reclusiveness and a sympathetic perspective on his story. Miss Maudie has only contempt for the superstitious view of Boo: he is no demon, and she knows that he is alive, because she hasn't seen him “carried out yet.” From her point of view, Boo was a nice boy who suffered at the hands of a tyrannically religious family. He is one of many victims populating a book whose title, To Kill a Mockingbird, suggests the destruction of an innocent being. In fact, as a sweet, young child apparently driven mad by an overbearing father obsessed with sin and retribution, Boo epitomizes the loss of innocence that the book, as a whole, dramatizes. For the children, who first treat him as a superstition and an object of ridicule but later come to view him as a human being, Boo becomes an important benchmark in their gradual development of a more sympathetic, mature perspective.
In these chapters, the first person other than Atticus to display a sympathetic attitude toward Boo is Miss Maudie, who, like Boo, emerges as an important character in this section. Miss Maudie is one of the book's strongest, most resilient female characters. One of the few people in the town who shares Atticus's sense of justice, she is also Scout's closest friend and confidante among the local women. Atticus's wife is dead, leaving Scout with Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra as her principal maternal figures. Whereas the latter provides a vision of proper womanhood and family pride, the former offers Scout understanding instead of criticizing her for wearing pants and not being ladylike. Miss Maudie is a stronger role model for Scout: she serves as a conscience for the town's women, just as Atticus does for the men, and her sharp tongue and honesty make her the opposite of vapid gossips like Stephanie Crawford.