To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
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What Happens in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Scout Finch lives with her brother, Jem, and her father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression. Scout spends her summers playing with Jem and their friend Dill, who visits his aunt in Maycomb each summer. The children become obsessed with Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor rumored to have stabbed his own father in the leg with a pair of scissors. During the school year, Boo leaves small presents for Scout and Jem in the knothole of a tree.

  • Tensions mount in Maycomb as Atticus prepares to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. One night, Scout prevents a mob from attacking Tom and Atticus at the jail. Many of Maycomb's white citizens question why Atticus accepted the case. The African American community, on the other hand, is grateful for his courage.
  • During the trial, Atticus argues that Mayella's injuries could not have been caused by Tom, whose left arm was crushed in an accident years before. Atticus further suggests that Mayella's father, Bob Ewell, has been abusing her for years and is the real culprit. In spite of this, the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and he's later killed while trying to escape from prison.
  • Bob Ewell seeks revenge on Atticus, who embarrassed him during the trial. On the night of the Halloween pageant, Ewell attacks Jem and Scout, intending to kill them. Boo Radley comes to the rescue, saving the children and stabbing Ewell in the process. Scout later walks Boo home, but never sees him again.

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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...

(The entire section is 4,720 words.)