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The first 15 chapters of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, pertain to the events leading up to the trial of Tom Robinson, which begins in Chapter 16. The first section of the book introduces the main characters--children Jem and Scout Finch (and father, Atticus, an attorney) and their visiting friend, Dill Harris--and their attempts to get a peek at the neighborhood mystery man, Arthur "Boo" Radley. We find that Scout, the novel's narrator, is a six-year old tomboy wise beyond her years; Jem is a boy dealing with approaching puberty; and Dill is the neglected little boy with an unquenchable curiosity of the Radley Place. We learn that their single father, Atticus, is one of the town's most respected men who is preparing for a controversial rape trial in which he must defend a local black man accused of attacking a white woman. The upcoming trial causes the Finch children to experience aggression and racial slurs from their friends, relatives and neighbors, putting them in several situations that most children of their age would not be forced to face.
Thorough chapter-by-chapter summaries can be found at the eNotes links below.
Chapter 1 of Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird introduces a little bit of Finch and Maycomb history along with a few of the major characters of the book. For the most part, though, this chapter reveals what Scout, Dill, and Jem do for their first summer together. Jem tells Dill stories of the local man of mystery, named Boo Radley, and Dill challenges Jem to find a way to get Boo to come out of his house. When Jem can't find a way to get Boo Radley out of the house without endangering their lives, Dill modifies the dare to include Jem only needing touch the Radleys' house. The chapter ends with Jem fulfilling the challenge, touching the house, and running back safely.
Chapters 2 and 3 describe Scout's first day of school. Her teacher, Miss Caroline, knows nothing about Maycomb, its traditions, or its people. Readers discover information about the community along with the teacher as Scout interacts with different students in and outside of class. Two important names that come up are Cunningham and Ewell. The fathers of two boys in class with these last names play vital roles in the story later on. Scout first hates and then becomes friends with Walter Cunningham. Burris Ewell, however, is a mean-spirited, dirty little boy who has no respect for authority or other people. Burris represents the Ewell name well that day in class because he behaves just as disrespectfully as his father does around town.
Chapter 4 marks the end of Scout's first year in school, the beginning of another summer with Dill, and the first of many gifts that the children find in a knothole of a tree in the Radleys' yard. First, Scout finds gum in the tree; next, she finds two polished, Indian-head pennies from 1900 and 1906. This is also the chapter that Scout is rolled in a tire all the way up to the Radleys' front steps. Afterward, Jem comes up with the idea to play out the Radleys' family drama like a game in the front yard for the summer.
By chapter 5, though, Scout is too nervous to play the dramatic game with the boys, so she spends more time with Miss Maudie across the street. Miss Maudie provides Scout with comfort and real answers about Boo Radley and the family he grew up with. This is also the chapter where Atticus gets Jem to admit what the game is about and the children receive a lecture about respecting other people's privacy. Consequently, Atticus warns the children never to play the game again. Getting busted by Atticus doesn't stop the boys from wanting to see Boo Radley before Dill goes home for school after summer break, though.
Chapter 6 revolves around the night before Dill goes home and their last attempt to see Boo Radley that summer. For fear of being called a girl, Scout accompanies the boys to the backyard of the Radleys' house. Mr. Nathan Radley fires a bullet in the air when he hears the kids in his yard and the children run for their lives! Unfortunately, Jem's pants get caught in the fence while on the run, and he leaves them there so he can get away safely. When the children show up in the street with the adults who are discussing the gun shot, Dill explains away Jem's missing pants with the excuse that they were playing strip poker. At the end of the chapter, Jem faces what he thinks of as certain death by returning to the fence to retrieve his pants. Luckily, he returns unscathed when the chapter ends.
Jem reveals to his sister in chapter 7 that his pants were crudely mended and waiting for him when he retrieved them from the Radleys' house that night. The children are curious as to who might have helped Jem that night. Also in this chapter, they find a pair of soap carvings in the knothole--one of a boy and one of a girl. This shows that the giver of these gifts must know Jem and Scout and desires to make contact with them by showing them his soap carving talents. The next gifts they find in the knothole are as follows: "a pocket watch that wouldn't run, on a chain with an aluminum knife" (60). Jem mentions that they should leave a thank you note in the knothole for the mysterious friend, but they discover the next day that Mr. Nathan Radley had filled the hole up with cement and claims that the tree is dying as his excuse. The children are very disappointed.
Scout experiences her first snowfall in chapter 8, followed by Miss Maudie's house burning down in the middle of the night. This chapter is significant because Scout comes home after the fire with an unknown blanket around her shoulders. Jem concludes that Boo Radley must have placed the blanket around Scout during the fire because all of the other neighbors were accounted for. Jem also spills his revelations about Boo Radley to his father, telling him that Boo is a nice man and not a killer. He also tells his father about the mended pants, that he thinks the gifts from the tree are from Boo, and that the blanket must be from him, too. It is in this chapter that Boo Radley changes in the children's minds from a boogeyman to a friend.
Chapter 9, though, is a turning point in the Finch household because the word is out around town that Atticus will be defending a black man the following summer. Cecil Jacobs calls Atticus out on the playground in front of Scout by saying he "defends ni***s." Then, during Christmas break, cousin Francis calls Atticus a "ni****-lover" in front of Scout to provoke her. After biding her time for the right moment, she beats Francis up and breaks her promise to her father not to get into any more fights.
Chapter 10 starts out with Scout comparing her father to other kids' dads. He doesn't hunt, fish, or play football, and he is older than most of the other fathers. Scout's disappointment in her father's age and lack of talents is squashed when he shoots a mad dog with one shot and saves the neighborhood. The children discover that just because their father is older, intelligent, and not like other kids' dads, that doesn't mean that he isn't skilled in many different ways.
Chapter 11 is mostly about Mrs. Dubose. She is a tough old woman who ignorantly calls the children's father derogatory names to their faces. As a result, Jem chops off the tops of her camellia bushes with Scout's baton and roughs up his sister during a reactive tantrum. As punishment, Atticus makes Jem apologize to the old woman, who then requires him to read to her each afternoon until she feels he has done his penance. Scout goes along for the readings and Mrs. Dubose dies at the end of the chapter. Atticus praises her for being the bravest person he ever knew because she faced her problems and died "beholden to none."
Chapter 12 is the first chapter in the second part of the novel. Atticus is away at the legislature, and Calpurnia decides to take the children to her church on Sunday. One congregant named Lula isn't thrilled with the children's presence, but for the most part, they are accepted with kindness by everyone else. This is when Scout learns the word "rape," and discovers that Tom Robinson's wife Helen can't get work to feed her three children. By the time they get home from church, Aunt Alexandra is waiting for them at the house.
Chapters 13 and 14 describe how the family adjusts to Aunt Alexandra living with them. The kids are not sure why she is there, but it is probably to help them as Atticus prepares for the trial. Aunt Alexandra floods the children with her philosophy about good breeding, family, and good manners. Scout and Aunt Alexandra don't get along very well, and with Jem going through mood swings due to puberty, Scout becomes confused with the household changes. As a result, everyone seems to be on edge, Jem and Scout fight more often, and Dill runs away from home only to be found hiding under Scout's bed! Fortunately, the summer is coming anyway, and he is allowed to stay in Maycomb.
Chapter 15 comes right before Tom Robinson's trial starts in chapter 16. This is also the chapter that deals with the mob of Cunninghams who try to get at Tom who is sitting in jail the night before the trial. The kids follow Atticus to the jail on that night before the trial and find him guarding his client. When the Cunningham mob shows up, Scout intervenes with a cute speech about being friends with Walter Cunningham. She also reminds Mr. Cunningham of all the work Atticus has done for him in the past to help him with his farm. These reminders of neighborly kindness are enough to influence Mr. Cunningham to call off the mob's activities.
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