Plot Summary: To Kill a Mockingbird

Citation metadata

Date: Jan. 2, 2018
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Plot summary
Length: 4,747 words
Content Level: (Intermediate)
Lexile Measure: 1010L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

Introduction

When To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, it brought its young first-time author, Harper Lee, a startling amount of attention and notoriety. The novel replays three key years in the life of Scout Finch, the young daughter of an Alabama town's principled lawyer. The work was an instant sensation, becoming a best-seller and winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Scout's narrative relates how she and her elder brother Jem learn about fighting prejudice and upholding human dignity through the example of their father Atticus, who takes on the legal defense of a black man who has been falsely charged with raping a white woman. Lee's story of the events surrounding the trial has been admired for its portrayal of Southern life during the 1930s, not only for its piercing examination of the causes and effects of racism, but because it created a model of tolerance and courage in the character of Atticus Finch. Some early reviewers found Scout's narration unconvincing, its style and language too sophisticated for a young girl. Since then, however, critics have hailed Lee's rendering of a child's perspective—as told by an experienced adult—as one of the most technically proficient in modern fiction. A regional novel dealing with universal themes of tolerance, courage, compassion, and justice, To Kill a Mockingbird combined popular appeal with literary excellence to ensure itself an enduring place in modern American literature.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What moral lessons does Atticus teach to his children throughout the novel?
  • How does the children's treatment of Boo Radley reflect the town's treatment of Tom Robinson?
  • What does Jem learn about Mr. Lafayette after he starts reading to her?

Plot

Part One

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird depicts the life of its young narrator, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the mid-1930s. Scout opens the novel as a grown woman reflecting back on key events in her childhood. The novel covers a two-year period, beginning when Scout is six and ending when she is eight. She lives with her father, Atticus, a widowed lawyer, and her older brother, Jem (short for Jeremy). Their black housekeeper, Calpurnia, tends to the children. Scout and Jem's summer playmate, Dill Harris, shares the Finch children's adventures and adds imagination and intrigue to their game playing. In the novel, we see Scout grow in awareness and come to new understandings about her town, her family, and herself.

During the summer before Scout enters school, the children become fascinated with Arthur "Boo" Radley, a reclusive neighbor. Radley's father, a religious fanatic, confined Boo to the house because he was arrested for youthful pranks as a teenager. Some years later, Boo casually stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors, confirming people's worst fears about him. The children are naturally afraid of and intrigued by such a "malevolent phantom," as Scout calls him. Yet they only approach the house once, when Jem runs and touches the porch on a dare.

Scout enters first grade the following September and must confront new challenges and learn new ways to deal with people. She cannot understand, for instance, her young teacher's lack of familiarity with the town families and their peculiarities, such as the Cunningham children's poverty and pride. Later, Atticus explains to Scout that she must put herself in others' places before judging them, one of the many lessons she learns by making mistakes.

With summer's return, Dill arrives and the children's absorption with Boo Radley begins again in earnest. Ultimately, they attempt to look in the house to see Boo, but a shotgun blast from Nathan Radley, Boo's brother, drives them off. In their panic, Jem catches his overalls in the Radley fence and must abandon them. Later that night, he returns to retrieve them and finds them neatly folded on the fence with the ripped fabric poorly resewn.

Their contact with Boo Radley continues into the school year. Before the previous summer, Scout and Jem had discovered gum and Indian head pennies in a knot-holed tree by the Radley house. Now more objects begin to appear in the knothole, including replicas of Scout and Jem carved in soap. They decide to leave a note for whoever is leaving the objects, but before they can, Nathan Radley fills the hole with cement, upsetting Jem.

Scout soon encounters trouble at school when a schoolmate condemns Atticus for "defending niggers." Atticus confirms that he is defending a black man named Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman, and that his conscience compels him to do no less. He warns her that she will encounter more accusations of this kind and to remember that despite their views, the people who cast slurs at them are still their friends. Atticus later tells his brother Jack that he hopes he can guide his children through this time without them becoming bitter and "without catching Maycomb's usual disease" of racism.

That Christmas, Atticus gives the children air-rifles and admonishes them to shoot no mockingbirds. Miss Maudie Atkinson, their neighbor, explains Atticus's reasons when she says that "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy." Hence, it is a sin to kill them. At this time, the children feel disappointed in Atticus because he is old (almost fifty) and does nothing of interest. They soon learn, however, about one of their father's unique talents when he shoots a rabid dog that threatens the neighborhood, killing the beast with one shot. The neighbors tell them that Atticus is the best shot in the county, he just chooses not to shoot a gun unless he must. Scout admires Atticus for his shooting talent, but Jem admires him for his gentlemanly restraint.

Bio Blurb: Harper Lee

Harper Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926, in the town of Monroeville, Alabama. Lee's childhood home was a traditional southern town, much like the one in To Kill a Mockingbird. The character of Scout Finch resembled the young Lee in many ways. Like Scout, Lee's father was a lawyer and provided much moral guidance to her as a young girl. Lee also witnessed the events surrounding the trial of the Scottsboro boys, nine black men accused of raping two white women. Her experiences informed the narrative of her novel, which she began writing in the 1950s and completed in 1957. She published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Critical opinion was originally mixed, but the book became a huge success and sold more than fifteen million copies. The novel was later turned into an award-winning film starring Gregory Peck. Lee's writing career essentially ended after To Kill a Mockingbird. She wrote a few short stories throughout the rest of her life, during which she never married. Shortly before her death, a manuscript of the first-draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was published as Go Set a Watchman by HarperCollins in 2015. Lee died on February 19, 2016, at the age of eighty-nine.

Part Two

The family's involvement in Tom Robinson's trial dominates Part Two of the novel. One personal inconvenience of the trial is the arrival of Aunt Alexandra, Atticus's sister, who comes to tend to the family. Scout finds her presence unwelcome because Aunt Alexandra disapproves of her tomboyish dress and activities and tries to make Scout wear dresses and attend women's socials.

The time for the trial arrives, and Atticus guards the jail door the night Tom Robinson is brought to Maycomb. The children, including Dill, sneak out to watch over him and soon become involved in a standoff. Carloads of men drive up and demand that Atticus let them have Tom Robinson, and he gently refuses. Scout recognizes a schoolmate's father, Mr. Cunningham, and asks him polite questions about his legal debt to Atticus, who did work for him, and about his son. Scout's innocent questioning of Mr. Cunningham shames him, and he convinces the men to leave.

The children also sneak to the courthouse to attend the trial. They sit in the balcony with the black townspeople because no seats are available on the ground floor. Atticus's questioning of Bob Ewell and Mayella Ewell, both of whom claim Tom Robinson beat and raped Mayella, reveals their lies. Mayella was beaten primarily on the right side of her body by a left-handed man. By having Bob Ewell sign his name, Atticus shows him to be left-handed. Tom Robinson's left arm, however, is crippled from a boyhood accident. Tom's story rings truer. He contends that Mayella invited him into the house and tried to seduce him, a story made credible by Mayella's and Tom's descriptions of her lonely life. Tom resisted, but before he could leave Bob Ewell discovered them. Tom ran and Ewell beat Mayella. To avoid social disgrace, the Ewells claimed Tom had raped her.

Despite the evidence, Tom is convicted. Atticus has expected this verdict and believes he can win on appeal. Jem has difficulty accepting the injustice of the verdict. Others, however, remain angry over Atticus's sincere defense of Robinson, particularly Bob Ewell. Ewell confronts Atticus, threatens him, and spits on him. Soon after, Tom Robinson's story ends in tragedy as he is shot trying to escape from prison. He ran because he believed he could find no justice in a white-dominated legal system.

The following October, Scout dresses as a ham for the school Halloween pageant. On the way home from the pageant, she and Jem are followed, then attacked. Scout cannot see their assailant because of her costume, but she hears Jem grappling with him and hears Jem being injured. After the confused struggle, she feels a man lying on the ground and sees another man carrying Jem. She follows them home. The doctor arrives and assures her that Jem is alive and has suffered only a broken arm. The man who carried him home is standing in Jem's room and, to her tearful amazement, she realizes that he is Boo Radley. Sheriff Heck Tate informs them that Bob Ewell attacked them and that only Scout's costume saved her. Ewell himself now lies dead, stabbed in the ribs. Atticus believes Jem killed Ewell in self-defense, but Tate makes him realize that Boo Radley actually stabbed Ewell and saved both children's lives. The men agree to claim that Ewell fell on his knife in order to save Boo the spectacle of a trial. Scout walks Boo home:

He had to stoop a little to accommodate me, but if Miss Stephanie Crawford was watching from her upstairs window, she would see Arthur Radley escorting me down the sidewalk, as any gentleman would do.

We came to the street light on the corner, and I wondered how many times Dill had stood there hugging the fat pole, watching, waiting, hoping. I wondered how many times Jem and I had made this journey, but I entered the Radley front gate for the second time in my life. Boo and I walked up the steps to the porch. His fingers found the front doorknob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it; we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.

She returns home to Atticus, who stays up all night waiting for Jem to awake.

Setting

The setting for To Kill a Mockingbird is another big factor in the story, for the action never leaves the town of Maycomb, Alabama. Maycomb is described variously as "an old town," "an ancient town," and "a tired old town," suggesting a conservative place that is steeped in tradition and convention. Scout's description of the local courthouse reinforces this impression. The building combines large Greek-style pillars—the only remnants from the original building that burned years ago—with the early Victorian design of its replacement. The result is an architectural oddity that indicates "a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past." The time of the novel is also significant, for the years 1933 to 1935 were in the midst of the Great Depression. These economic hard times affected the entire town, for if farmers and other laborers made barely enough money to survive, they had no extra money with which they could pay professionals like doctors and lawyers. When Atticus renders a legal service for Walter Cunningham Sr., a farmer whose property rights are in question because of an entailment, he is repaid with goods such as firewood and nuts instead of cash. This history between the two men influences events during the novel; when a lynch mob appears at the local jail, Scout recognizes Cunningham as her father's former client. The conversation she strikes up with him recalls him to his sense, and he sheepishly leads the mob away.

Characters

Maudie Atkinson, also known as Atkinson, Miss: Maudie Atkinson is a strong, supportive woman who lives across the street from the Finches. A forthright speaker, she never condescends to Jem and Scout, but speaks to them as equals. It is Miss Maudie who affirms that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, since "they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." A respected community member who often teasingly reproaches the children, Miss Maudie nevertheless has an impish streak: she likes to quote scripture back to conservative religious folk who frown on her brightly colored garden. Miss Maudie provides another example of bravery to the children when her home burns down; instead of lamenting her fate, she tells Jem she looks forward to rebuilding a smaller house which will have more room for her flowers.

Avery, Mr.: A good-natured if somewhat coarse neighbor of the Finches who helps fight the fire at Miss Maudie's house at risk to his own life.

Calpurnia: One of several strong female figures in the lives of the Finch children, Calpurnia is the family's black housekeeper. She has helped to raise Jem and Scout since their mother's death four years ago. Like Atticus, Calpurnia is a strict but loving teacher, particularly in regard to Scout, whose enthusiasm sometimes makes her thoughtless. On Scout's first day of school, for example, Calpurnia scolds Scout for criticizing the table manners of Walter Cunningham Jr., whom the children have brought home as a lunch guest. That day after school, however, Calpurnia prepares Scout's favorite food, crackling bread, as a special treat. Calpurnia also gives Scout her first awareness of the contrast between the worlds of black and white. During a visit to Calpurnia's church, her use of black dialect with her friends makes Scout realize that Calpurnia has a wider life outside the Finch household. Calpurnia also helps Scout understand how people can serve as a bridge between these differing worlds. Although the majority of parishioners welcome them during their church visit, one woman challenges the white children. Calpurnia responds by calling them her guests and saying "it's the same God, ain't it?"

Stephanie Crawford: The "neighborhood scold" who is always ready to gossip about anything or anyone.

Walter Cunningham, Jr.: A poor but proud classmate of Scout's.

Walter Cunningham, Sr.: Walter Cunningham, Sr., is a member of a poor family who "never took anything they couldn't pay back." A former client of Atticus's, he paid for legal service with goods such as firewood and hickory nuts. After Scout recognizes him in the potential lynch mob and speaks to him of his son, he leads the crowd away from violence.

Link Deas: A local farmer who hires a lot of black help and once employed Tom Robinson.

Henry Lafayette Dubose, Mrs., also known as Dubose, Mrs.: According to Scout, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose is "the meanest old woman who ever lived." She regularly insults and harasses the children as they walk by. When Jem wrecks her garden in retaliation for a nasty remark about his father, Atticus punishes him by forcing him to spend many hours reading to her. She dies later that year, and Jem learns that his reading helped her to courageously defeat an addiction to morphine.

Bob Ewell: The head of family who's been "the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations," Bob Ewell is despised by Maycomb society as a shiftless drunkard. He is unable to keep a job, spends all his relief money on alcohol, and traps animals outside of hunting season. He provides little support to his large, motherless family, and is reputed to beat his children (and perhaps sexually abuse them too, as Mayella's testimony hints). Angered and shamed by his exposure on the witness stand, Ewell makes threats to Atticus and others involved in the trial, but never risks direct confrontation. This cowardice reaches its peak in his violent attack on Scout and Jem, during which he is killed by Boo Radley.

Mayella Ewell: The eldest daughter of Bob Ewell, Mayella Ewell lives a lonely life keeping house for her father and seven siblings without assistance. Although she can only afford small gestures such as a potted plant, Mayella tries to brighten her situation and the lives of her siblings. During the trial it is revealed that Tom Robinson's occasional stops to help her with heavy chores were her only contact with a sympathetic soul. When Bob Ewell discovers Mayella's attempt to seduce the unwilling Tom, his violent outburst leads her to accuse Tom of rape. Despite her situation, she loses the reader's sympathy when she repays Tom's kindness with open contempt and a lie that costs him his life. The fact that the jury accepts her word over his, even when it is demonstrated to be false, further illustrates the malicious power of racist thinking.

Gertrude Farrow, also known as Farrow, Mrs.: One of the hypocritical members of Aunt Alexandra's missionary circle.

Braxton Bragg Underwood, also known as B. B. Underwood: The owner and editor of the local newspaper who was ready to defend Atticus and Tom Robinson from the lynch mob with a shotgun even though he is known to "despise" black people.

Atticus Finch: Atticus Finch, Scout's widowed father, is a member of one of Maycomb County's oldest and most prominent families. Nevertheless, he refuses to use his background as an excuse to hold himself above others and instead is a model of tolerance and understanding. Atticus is a lawyer and also a member of the state legislature, elected by townspeople who respect his honesty even if they don't always approve of his actions. For example, when Atticus is appointed the defense attorney for Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, the town disapproves because he aims to do the best job he can. As a father Atticus is affectionate with Jem and Scout, ready with a hug when they need comfort and available to spend time reading to them. Although he allows his children freedom to play and explore, he is also a firm disciplinarian, always teaching his children to think of how their actions affect others and devising punishments to teach his children valuable lessons. When Jem damages the camellia bushes of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, a neighbor who scolds and insults the children, Atticus sentences him to read to her each day. As Jem reads, he and Scout witness the dying woman's battle against her morphine addiction and learn the true meaning of courage: "it's when you know you're licked before you begin but you see it through no matter what," Atticus tells them. Atticus's own actions in arguing the Robinson case demonstrate this kind of courage, and his behavior throughout embodies values of dignity, integrity, determination, and tolerance. Although Atticus's character is somewhat idealized, critic William T. Going calls Lee's creation "the most memorable portrait in recent fiction of the just and equitable Southern liberal."

Jean Louise Finch, also known as Scout Finch: The narrator of the novel, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is almost six years old at the time her story begins. A tomboy most frequently clad in overalls, Scout spends much of her time with her older brother Jem and is constantly trying to prove herself his equal. Throughout the book Scout maintains an innocence and an innate sense of right and wrong that makes her the ideal observer of events, even if she doesn't always fully understand them. She naturally questions the injustices she sees instead of accepting them as "the way things are." For instance, she doesn't understand why her aunt makes social distinctions based on "background" when Scout thinks "there's just one kind of folks: Folks." Her independence and outspokenness often get Scout into trouble, however; she is quick to respond to insults with her fists and frequently opens her mouth at inappropriate moments, as when she rudely remarks on the table manners of a guest. By the end of the novel, however, eight-year-old Scout has learned a measure of restraint, primarily through the influence and example of her father Atticus.

Jeremy Finch, also known as Jem Finch: Four years older than his sister Scout, Jeremy "Jem" Finch seems to have a deeper understanding of the events during the three years of the novel, for his emotional reactions to them are stronger. As the story begins, Jem is a quick-witted but fun-loving ten year old who spends a lot of time in creative play with Scout and Dill Harris, a summer visitor to the neighborhood. Jem is frequently exasperated by his sister, and requires her to keep her distance during school hours. Nevertheless, for the most part Jem is an understanding and encouraging older brother, allowing Scout to join in his games and even dignifying her with an occasional fistfight. He is anxious to please his father, and hates to disappoint him. When Jem loses his pants in the "raid" on the Radley house, he insists on returning for them during the middle of the night—not so much to avoid the pain of punishment, but because "Atticus ain't ever whipped me since I can remember. I wanta keep it that way." As he approaches adolescence, however, Jem becomes quieter and more easily agitated: he reacts angrily when Mrs. Dubose leaves him a small peace offering after her death. Although more socially aware than Scout, he is genuinely surprised at Tom Robinson's guilty verdict. The trial leaves Jem a little more withdrawn and less self-confident, and he spends much of the following fall concerned for his father's safety. He demonstrates his own courage, however, when he protects his sister from the attack of Bob Ewell without regard for his own safety.

John Hale Finch, also known as Jack Finch and Jack, Uncle: Atticus's younger brother, a doctor who left Maycomb to study in Boston.

Caroline Fisher, also known as Fisher, Miss: Scout's first-grade teacher who is a newcomer to Maycomb.

Gates, Miss: Scout's hypocritical third-grade teacher who condemns Hitler's persecution of the Jews even as she discriminates against her own students and complains about blacks "getting above themselves."

Gilmer, Mr.: The circuit prosecutor from Abbottsville who leads the case against Tom Robinson.

Alexandra Finch Hancock, also known as Alexandra, Aunt: Atticus's sister, Alexandra Finch Hancock, is a conservative woman concerned with social and class distinctions and bound to the traditions of the South. She tries to counteract her brother's liberal influence on his children by reminding them of their family's eminence and by trying to make Scout behave in a more ladylike manner. When she moves in with Atticus's family, her efforts to reform Scout include requiring her attendance at regular meetings of a "missionary circle," whose discussions focus on improving the lives of "heathens" in distant Africa rather than on the needy in their own town. Aunt Alexandra is not completely unsympathetic, however; she also shows—in private—some anger towards the hypocrites in her missionary circle. Although she disapproves of Atticus's role in the Robinson case, she becomes upset upon hearing news of Robinson's death during one of her parties. Her ability to continue on leads Scout to state that "if Auntie could be a lady at a time like this, so could I."

Francis Hancock: Scout and Jem's cousin and Alexandra's grandson.

Charles Baker Harris, also known as Dill Harris: Small and devilish, Charles Baker "Dill" Harris is Scout and Jem's summer friend. He instigates much of the children's mischief by daring Jem to perform acts such as approaching the Radley house. He seems to have a limitless imagination, and his appeal is only enhanced by his firsthand knowledge of movies such as Dracula. Seemingly ignored (but not neglected) by his parents, Dill enjoys his yearly visits to his aunt, Rachel Haverford, who lives next door to the Finches—he even runs away from home one summer to come to Maycomb. A year older than Scout, Dill has declared he will one day marry her, a statement she seems to accept matter-of-factly. The character of Dill was based on Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote.

Rachel Haverford: Dill Harris's sympathetic aunt, who lives next door to the Finches.

Grace Merriweather: A member of Alexandra's missionary circle who has a reputation as the "most devout lady in Maycomb" even though she is a hypocritical bigot.

Arthur Radley, also known as Boo Radley: Arthur "Boo" Radley has a strong presence in the novel even though he isn't seen until its last pages. A local legend for several years, Boo is rumored to wander the neighborhood at night and dine on raw squirrels and cats, and has spent the last fifteen years secluded in his own house. An adolescent prank led his late father to place him under house arrest. His sinister reputation stems from a later incident, when it was rumored that he stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors. Boo becomes a central figure in the imaginations of Scout, Jem, and their neighbor Dill Harris, for their summers are occupied with dramatic re-creations of his life and plans to lure "the monster" out of his house. Despite his history of being abused by his father, Boo is revealed to be a gentle soul through his unseen acts: the gifts he leaves in the tree; his mending of Jem's torn pants; the blanket he puts around Scout the night of the fire; and finally, his rescue of the children from Bob Ewell's murderous attack. The children's fear of Boo Radley, based on ignorance rather than knowledge, subtly reflects the prejudice of the town against Tom Robinson—a connection mirrored in the use of mockingbird imagery for both men.

Nathan Radley: Boo's hardhearted older brother who spoils Boo's secret game with the children by filling the empty tree hole with cement.

Dolphus Raymond: A local man from a good white family with property who has a black mistress and children. He fosters a reputation as a drunk to give townspeople a reason to excuse his flaunting of social taboos.

Tom Robinson: Tom Robinson is a mild-mannered, conscientious black man whose kind acts earn him only trouble when Mayella Ewell accuses him of rape. Because he saw she was left alone to maintain the household without any help from her family, he often performed small chores for her. During his testimony, he relates that he felt sorry for the girl. This remark affronts the white men in the jury, who see it as evidence that he is overreaching his social station. Although he is clearly proven innocent, the all-white jury convicts him of rape, a crime punishable by death. Unconvinced that he can find justice on appeal, Robinson attempts to escape from his prison camp and is shot dead.

Sykes, Reverend: The minister of Maycomb's black church.

Heck Tate: The sheriff of Maycomb who is sympathetic towards Atticus and who insists on keeping Boo Radley's role in the death of Bob Ewell a secret.

John Taylor, also known as Taylor, Judge: The deceivingly sleepy but fair judge whose sympathy for Tom Robinson can be seen in the fact that he appointed Atticus, whom he knew would do his best, as Robinson's public defender.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Plot Summary: To Kill a Mockingbird." DISCovering Authors, Gale, 2003. Gale In Context: Middle School, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FEJ2101301305%2FMSIC%3Fu%3Dportland%26sid%3DMSIC%26xid%3Ded3eb14e. Accessed 26 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2101301305