To Kill a Mockingbird Summary
by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
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To Kill a Mockingbird Summary

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee in which Scout Finch learns about racism and the failures of the justice system when her father, Atticus, defends a falsely accused black man in court.

  • Tensions mount in Maycomb, Alabama as Atticus Finch prepares to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.
  • During the trial, Atticus mounts a compelling defense for Tom and accuses Bob Ewell, the father of Tom's accuser, of domestic abuse. However, the all-white jury finds Tom guilty.
  • Scout's neighbor Boo Radley rescues her and her brother from Bob Ewell's vengeful assault.

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Summary

Part I

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. Her brother is four years older than her, and her father, Atticus Finch, is an attorney and member of the State Legislature who is, for the most part, well-respected in the community. Their friend, Charles Baker Harris, commonly referred to as “Dill,” visits every summer and becomes one of the primary sources of humor in the novel.

Other characters include Miss Maudie, the wise neighbor who spends most of her time gardening and baking cakes; Calpurnia, the African American servant who cares for the Finch children and runs the household; and Aunt Alexandra, who’s excessively critical of the other characters in the novel—especially Scout. Of the three, Scout has perhaps the best relationship with Miss Maudie, who teaches her valuable life lessons and explains that Atticus is an upstanding man. Calpurnia, being Scout’s caregiver and a disciplinarian, is a major figure in Scout’s life and instructs her on manners, morals, and the divide between whites and African Americans. Atticus, however, is the Finch children’s moral compass, and it’s from him that they learn to read, think, and react to the world. On Christmas, he gives them air rifles as presents, but admonishes them never to shoot a mockingbird, because it’s a sin to kill something that does nothing but make beautiful music for everyone. This is the source of the novel’s title.

It becomes clear early on that Scout isn’t like the other girls in Maycomb. For one, she primarily wears boy clothes and isn’t interested in acting like a “lady.” On the first day of school, she has a confrontation with her teacher, Miss Caroline, who doesn’t know that one of Scout’s classmates, Walter Cunningham, is from a poor family and won’t accept charity. When Scout tries to explain this, Miss Caroline strikes her hand, effectively whipping her in front of the class. For this, Scout grinds Walter’s face into the dirt and blames him for getting her in trouble at school. Throughout the first half of the novel, Scout gets into fights with people, including her own cousin, who says bad things about Scout’s father Atticus, and her brother, who doesn’t want Scout to talk to him at school—only after school. Nevertheless, Scout and Jem remain close and play together at the house when they aren’t at school.

Scout, Jem, and Dill spend most of the summer playing elaborate games, and these end up being the subject of the next few chapters of the novel. One of their favorite games is a reenactment of an incident between their neighbor, Boo, and his father, Mr. Radley. According to town lore, Boo was sitting at a table, cutting up some papers, when suddenly he took up the scissors and stabbed his father in the thigh as he was walking past. No reason is given for his outburst, and because of it the children are afraid of Boo to the point where they run past his...

(The entire section is 3,261 words.)