Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a
story of life in an Alabama town in the 1930's. The narrator, Jean Louise
(commonly called Scout) Finch, is writing of a time when she was seven or
eight years old, and the book is in part the record of a childhood.
The story begins as Scout describes her family history and her town, Maycomb
during the time of the Great Depression. Atticus is a prominent lawyer and
the Finch family is reasonably well off in comparison to the rest of society.
She and her brother, Jem meet Dill, who has come to
live in their neighborhood for the summer, and the children share stories
and fantasies about the mystery man (Boo Radley) who lives near by.
The house is owned by Mr. Nathan Radley, whose brother,
Arthur (nicknamed Boo), has lived there for years without venturing outside.
Not much is really known of him, just hearsay stories that people whisper
to one another and to their children to warn them of the evils that may occur
(this is due to their fear of the unknown). One story that is told is regarding
an incident with Radley's father, who is supposedly stabbed with a pair of
scissors, while Boo is under the influence of the "wrong group of friends".
The reader learns that Scout has problems at school early on because her
teacher is annoyed with her for knowing more than what was expected in her
grade. On the same day she has another problem at home when she makes negative
comments about Walter Cunningham's eating habits, a boy who comes from a very
poor family. She learns a lesson in manners from Calpurnia, the Finch's Negro
housekeeper, and is taught to treat people with respect regardless as to who
they are. When she complains to Atticus that Calpurnia spanked her, she is
reprimanded by him and taught a lesson in compromise.
As time goes by, Scout and Jem find some mysterious presents in the knothole
of an old tree on the Radley place. This makes the children become even more
curious about the mysterious Boo Radley. Jem, Dill, and Scout venture out
one night to try to see into Boo Radley's back window - an adventure that
leads to frightening results, especially for Jem.
The next winter, Jem and Scout find more presents in
the tree, presumably left by the mysterious Boo. Their treasures include small
sculptures and a watch. Unfortunately, their bounty is suddenly cut off by
Mr. Radley, who seals up the hole in the tree. One night, during a rare snowstorm,
Miss Maudie's house is ruined in a fire. Scout who runs out of the house to
watch the scene from nearby without wearing a coat, has a rare encounter with
Boo Radley without even knowing it.
Atticus decides to defend a black man named Tom Robinson who has been accused
of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. She is a member of the Ewell family,
who is looked down upon by Maycomb society and referred to as "trash."
Atticus knows that Tom has almost no chance because he is black and will be
tried by an all white jury. Nevertheless, he wants to help him reveal the
As a result of Atticus's decision, Jem and Scout get
into a number of fisticuffs with classmates and their cousin when they taunt
them and call Atticus a "nigger lover."
Life seems to be full of lesson for Scout and Jem. For example when Scout
is chased by a rabid dog, she discovers that her father, whom she previously
thought too old to do anything, does possess some talents. Atticus turns out
be a crack shot, killing the dog in one shot at a great distance. Another
time the children learn to be tolerant of people who have problems even though
they say mean things. A neighbor, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, derides Atticus
and spreads lies about him. Jem gets very angry at her and cuts off her flower
bushes. Instead of siding with Jem, Atticus feels that what he did is wrong
and as punishment, Jem has to read out loud to her every day to take her mind
off her predicament. Atticus holds this old woman up as an example of true
courage as she is trying to break her morphine addiction and keeps fighting
against all odds.
Atticus leaves town, and Calpurnia, the Finch's black maid, takes Jem and
Scout to her church. There the children feel very welcomed by the black community.
They also learn more information about Tom Robinson, the man who Atticus intends
As Tom Robinson's trial approaches, Atticus worries about the safety of his
client. This fear that proves to be justified. A group of townspeople, including
Walter Cunningham, appear at the courthouse one night, with the intention
of lynching Tom Robinson. The only person who stands in their way is Atticus.
At first, the mob intends to plow right through him, but with the unexpected
arrival of Scout, they realize the error of their actions.
When Tom Robinson takes the stand, the obviously true story comes out. It
becomes evident that Mayella Ewell was a very lonely person who's only crime
was to kiss a black man. Her father, Bob Ewell, beat and raped her for this
crime and forced her to say that Tom Robinson did it, so that he
wouldn't get in trouble.
During a break in the trial, Scout and Dill get to know Dolphus Raymond better.
He is thought to be a town drunk, looked badly upon for being a white man
that married a black woman. As it turns out, he isn't drunk after all. He
merely uses it as a cover-up, so that he doesn't have to answer questions
about his life. Afterwards, Scout and Jem listen to Atticus's closing statements
in the trial.
Despite the significant evidence pointing to Tom's
innocence, the all-white jury convicts him. Though the verdict is unfortunate,
Atticus feels some satisfaction that the jury took so long deciding. Usually
the decision would be made in minutes, because a black man's word would not
be trusted. Atticus is hoping for an appeal, but unfortunately Tom tries to
escape from his prison and is shot to death. In the aftermath of the trial,
Jem's faith in justice is badly shaken, and he lapses into despondency and
After the verdict is announced in Tom Robinson's case, guilty, the children,
as well as other members of the community, discuss and react to the verdict.
Atticus and the children discuss the trial, Scout and Aunt Alexandra discuss
Walter Cunningham, and Jem and Scout discuss class distinctions.
Months pass, Summer turns to Fall, the routine of school starts for the children,
but Bob Ewell holds on to his grudge against some of Maycomb's citizens, including
Judge Taylor, Helen Robinson and Atticus. In October, the night of Halloween,
Scout prepares for a presentation at her school. She plans to wear a bulky
pig costume, one that severely limits her vision. While returning home from
the school pageant, Jem and Scout are attacked. Jem's arm is broken, and a
stranger carries him home. Scout cannot see what is happening because of her
constrictive costume. Afterwards, a search of the area by the local officials
turns up Bob Ewell's dead body.
As Heck Tate and Atticus listen, Scout tells them what happened to her and
Jem, ending by pointing to the man who had carried Jem home, who she realizes
is Boo Radley. Atticus assumes that it was Jem who stabbed Bob Ewell, but
the sheriff tells Atticus that he intends to report that Ewell fell on his
own knife. Atticus is sure that the sheriff is trying to protect Jem, until
it finally dawns on him that it was actually Boo Radley who killed Ewell.
Scout walks Boo Radley home and then returns to her house.