To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, who recalls her childhood spent in the sleepy Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama. Set in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, part 1 of the novel mainly consists of Scout’s everyday trials and tribulations with her father, Atticus; her older brother, Jem; their Black housekeeper, Calpurnia; and their neighbors. Scout and Jem are becoming more aware of the adult world around them. Atticus Finch desires his children to be more tolerant in a town that has certain deep-rooted prejudices. Scout and Jem begin this struggle for understanding when Dill, a precocious nephew of their neighbor Stephanie Crawford, visits one summer. Dill proposes that they try to make Boo Radley come out of his house. Fascinated by the town’s rumors that Boo is insane, the children make several attempts to lure the mysterious recluse out into the open.
When Dill leaves in the fall, the children’s ideas concerning Boo fade. Scout encounters the school system for the first time. On the first day of school, she gets in trouble with her new teacher because Atticus has been teaching Scout to read; the teacher insists that Scout learn to read “properly”—that is, in school. From this encounter, Atticus teaches Scout about compromise—they will continue to read together every night, but Scout must learn her teacher’s reading methods as well— and about the value of seeing things from another person’s perspective.
Later in the school year, Jem discovers gifts left in the knot hole of a tree on the Radley place. The children realize that Boo Radley may have left these gifts for them. The children’s pondering over Boo Radley’s existence is overtaken, however, by Atticus’ involvement with the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. Atticus tries his best to prepared his children for the months ahead. At Christmas, Atticus gives the children their first air rifles but cautions that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds only bring pleasure. Later, Scout connects this comment about the innocent mockingbird to Boo Radley.
Part 2 is the more serious section of the novel, moving from the happy memories of Scout’s childhood to Tom Robinson’s trial and its long-reaching effects on Atticus and the children. On the night before the hearing, a lynch party is narrowly diverted when Scout, having followed Atticus to the jail along with Jem and Dill, recognizes a classmate’s father. Her innocent remarks to the man cause him to disband the lynch mob.
The trial brings the whole county of Maycomb to hear the testimony of Mayella Ewell, a white girl who lives in extreme poverty with her shiftless father, Bob Ewell. During cross-examination, Atticus proves that the Ewells are lying about Tom, but unfortunately, as Jem and Scout learn, the jury upholds Ewell’s word, and Tom is convicted of rape. The children and their father barely get over the pain of this conviction before word comes that Tom has been killed while trying to escape from prison.
By the fall of Scout’s eighth year, the controversy has died down, but Bob Ewell continues to threaten members of the court who he feels discredited him. He publicly spits on Atticus. Later, Ewell attacks Jem and Scout on their way home from the town’s Halloween pageant. Scout survives the attack unscathed, but Jem is badly hurt. Reunited with a frightened Atticus, she learns that it was their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, who killed Ewell and saved the children’s lives. Atticus and the town sheriff decide not to tell the town of Boo’s deed, and Scout agrees, reminding Atticus that it would be “like shootin’ a mockingbird.” After walking Boo home, Scout stands on his front porch and finally understands her father’s words about seeing things from another’s point of view.