Last Updated on June 28, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1937
The novel opens with the narrator, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, relating that when her brother Jem was thirteen he broke his arm badly at the elbow. Scout withholds the exact cause of his accident, transitioning instead to her memories of the events leading up to Jem’s injury and their childhood in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. Scout tells the story as an adult, but within the narrative she is a little girl who’s just six years old at the beginning of the novel and eight years old at the end. Scout has been thinking about the story ever since, and even though she and her brother disagree about where exactly the story begins, Scout takes it all the way back to General Andrew Jackson, whose war against the Creek Tribe led Scout’s ancestor, Simon Finch, to sail to Alabama, where he established a homestead, Finch’s Landing, and grew rich on slave labor. The Civil War altered the family’s fortunes, but still left them solidly upper middle class. Atticus became a lawyer, and his brother became a doctor.
Scout introduces us to Maycomb, “a tired old town” where people shuffle around with nothing to do, and to Calpurnia, her family’s servant, an African American woman with a hand as “wide as a bed slat and twice as hard.” Calpurnia is the disciplinarian in their household, the female figure who picks up the slack left behind by Scout’s mother, who died when she was two. Scout doesn’t remember her mother, but Jem does, and this sometimes affects their relationship. In the summer, the Finch children are bounded by Mrs. Dubose’s house two doors to the north and by the Radley house three doors to the south when they’re outside playing. This suits them fine, and they spend most of their days playing together just the two of them, having no friends their age living within that radius. That is, until Dill arrives.
Charles Baker “Dill” Harris is from Meridian, Mississippi, and is visiting his Aunt Rachel for the summer. His arrival sparks renewed fascination with the Radley house and the stories circulating about it around Maycomb. According to one of them, Boo Radley, Mr. Radley’s son, was caught making trouble one night with his friends the Cunninghams when they locked Maycomb’s beadle in the courthouse outhouse. As punishment, Boo’s friends were sent to the state industrial school. Boo himself stayed home and hasn’t been seen since. Jem says that when Boo was thirty-three he plunged a pair of scissors into his father’s leg one day for no good reason. Mr. Radley had simply been walking by, and Boo stabbed him. When the police came, he was just sitting there, working on his scrapbook as if nothing had happened. This story scares the kids and makes them reluctant to pass the Radley house. Even after Mr. Radley dies and is replaced by Boo’s older brother, Mr. Nathan Radley, the kids fear the house enough to feel the need to run past it as fast as possible.
In fact, the kids are scared enough that when Dill dares Jem to touch the house, at first he doesn’t want to do it. Dill has to goad him into it, and even then, Jem does it at top speed, running up and slapping the side of the Radley house before sprinting back to his own porch. The kids think they see a shutter move inside the Radley house, but then everything goes still.
One example of this is "the grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square."
Andrew Jackson (1767 - 1845). A prominent American general and statesman and the 7th President of the United States. In 1802 Jackson was elected the major general of the Tennessee militia, which he later led during the War of 1812. His service in the war brought him national fame and led to his presidential campaign in 1824, which he lost to John Quincy Adams in what’s known as the “corrupt bargain.” In 1828, he defeated Adams and was elected President. Scout refers to him at the beginning of the novel both to segue into her family’s history and to establish herself as an authoritative narrator.
Battle of Hastings. Fought on October 14th, 1066, between the armies of Duke William II of Normandy and Harold Godwinson, then King of the Anglo-Saxons, the Battle of Hastings marked the beginning of the Norman conquest of England. The battle was the result of a succession crisis following the death of King Edward of England and is considered one of the single most important battles in English history. That the Finches don’t have any ancestors on either side of the battle is a source of some shame to some members of the family, but doesn’t concern Scout very much.
Cornwall. An English county bordered by the Celtic Sea and the English Channel. Simon Finch was from Cornwall—a fact Scout mentions to indicate that he wasn’t from a respectable family.
Creeks. In particular, the “Red Stick” Creeks, a faction of the larger Native American tribe that fought in the Creek War, also known as the Creek Civil War. Andrew Jackson fought in this war as general of the Tennessee militia. Were it not for this war, Scout says, her ancestor Simon never would’ve come to Alabama or founded Finch’s Landing.
Dracula (1931). One of many film adaptations of the popular Bram Stoker novel of the same name. Dill tells Jem and Scout the entire plot of the film, including the part where Dracula turns to dust. Dill uses this information to impress Jem and Scout and earn entry into their group.
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 - 1950). An American writer best known for his creation of the character Tarzan. His works provide some of the source material for the dramas or plays the kids put on over the summer.
The Gray Ghost by Robert F. Schulkers. One of a series of eleven kids’ books about the character Seckatary Hawkins, a fat boy with a big cowlick who relates the adventures of his group of friends. Lee was a fan of these books, and her characters share her appreciation of the series.
Methodists. Members of the Methodist denomination of the Protestant Church. Scout’s ancestor, Simon, was a Methodist and fled Cornwall, England, to avoid persecution by the Catholic Church.
Oliver Optic (1822 - 1897). The pseudonym of scholar and writer William Taylor Adams, who published over 100 books for boys in his lifetime. Oliver Optic was the most often used of his many pseudonyms and was also the name of a periodical, Oliver Optic’s Magazine, in which many of his works were published.
The Rover Boys. A series of popular books for boys by Arthur M. Winfield, a pseudonym of Edward Stratemeyer, publisher and founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which published The Rover Boys series.
Tarzan. A series of book written by the author Edgar Rice Burroughs and featuring the popular character Tarzan. This series is a favorite of Scout, Jem, and Dill’s.
Tom Swift. A series of popular books for boys centered around the character Tom Swift, who was created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of The Rover Boys books series. Tom Swift books were written by many different ghostwriters, who wrote collectively under the name Victor Appleton.
Victor Appleton. The pseudonym used by the collective of writers who produced the Tom Swift series.
Maycomb vs. the Radleys. Maycomb’s gossip mill has not been kind to the Radleys, and in particular to Boo Radley, whose juvenile arrest record, violent tendencies, and seeming imprisonment have become the subject of much discussion, particularly amongst the children. Maycomb’s youth has built up the very idea of Boo Radley to the point of being monstrous, so even though none of them have met Boo, they all fear him. When pets start dying, everyone suspects the Radleys, which is a good indication of how suspicious Maycomb’s citizens are of the reclusive family.
Scout vs. Calpurnia. One of the more innocuous major conflicts in the novel is that between Scout and Calpurnia, the Finches’ stern, hard-handed servant. Calpurnia is the primary disciplinarian in the house, charged with keeping the peace, teaching the children about good manners, and making sure they stay out of trouble. In part because of this, and in part because Scout doesn’t like rules in general and lost her female role model (her mother) early, her relationship with Calpurnia is strained. She doesn’t like being told to be quiet or to act like a girl, and Calpurnia, despite her obvious affection for the Finch children, can’t replace their mother. Scout and Calpurnia will eventually come to a kind of truce, but in these early chapters, when Scout has yet to mature, there’s still some conflict.
In the first few paragraphs, Scout foreshadows the events that lead to Jem breaking his arm. This doesn’t happen until the end of the novel, which makes the entire novel a lead-up to that event.
One example of this would be the idiom “up the creek,” which means in an awkward position. In Scout’s version of Simon Finch’s story, General Jackson pushes the Native American Creek tribe “up the creek,” meaning that he’d driven them into a bad position.
Scout puns on the word “creek” and the Native American tribe the Creeks.
Friendship. Friendship is one of the most important themes in the novel. It’s established early with the arrival of Dill, a little boy going on seven years old who becomes Scout and Jem’s best friend in the first chapter. Dill is something of a joker, a teller of tall-tales and player of games, and even dares Jem to touch Boo Radley’s house. Their friendship provides some much-needed levity to an otherwise serious novel and helps bind the Finch children together even as they develop different interests.
Gossip. Maycomb seems to thrive on gossip. In this chapter, the gossip is focused mainly on the Radleys, who, thanks in part to their son Boo, have become outcasts, feared for their strange behavior and unpleasant history. The Radleys themselves don’t participate in the town gossip mill, which only distances them further from the rest of the community.
Law. It’s established early in the narrative that Atticus went to study law in Montgomery and that he is a remarkably good lawyer (perhaps too good for a small town like Maycomb). He’s a member of the State Legislature and appears to be the most prominent lawyer in Maycomb. Later, we’ll see how the respect Atticus merits as a lawyer leads to his involvement in the Tom Robinson case.
Nature. When the Finch children aren’t inside reading with Atticus, they’re outside playing in nature. It’s customary for them to spend time climbing trees, swimming in the creek, and playing in the dirt, which makes nature an important part of their lives. Later on in the novel, the oppressive summer heat will become a character in itself as it affects Tom Robinson’s trial.
Superstition. Superstition is another major theme in the novel, though it primarily affects the children. Jem and Scout have a lot of strange superstitions, mostly about death, ghosts, and the Radley place, which is figured almost like a haunted house, with shadows moving in the windows. Their superstitions make it difficult for them to understand Boo Radley at first and contribute to their fear.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support