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.


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 house to avoid being in front of it. In one scene, Dill dares Jem to touch the Radleys’ house, and in another, Scout accidentally rolls into the Radleys’ yard in a tire after Jem pushes her much too hard. This incident leads Boo to start leaving presents (soap dolls, pennies, gum) for Scout and Jem in a knothole in the tree by their house, and this in turn leads the children to become curious about Boo and develop a sort of friendship. When Miss Maudie’s house burns down, Boo slips out of his house to place a blanket on Scout’s shoulders without her noticing. Without meeting face to face, the two characters form a special bond.

There are, however, moments of extreme peril in Part I. In addition to Miss Maudie’s house fire, there are mentions of animals being tortured by a character named Crazy Addie, of houses being broken into, and of course the attack on Mayella. Jem, Scout, and Dill have a brush with death when they sneak into the Radleys’ backyard and get shot at by Mr. Nathan Radley. In the process of fleeing, Jem gets his pants caught and has to leave them behind. Nathan Radley, assuming that he was shooting at an African American man trespassing on his property, doesn’t realize that the children were trying to sneak a peek inside his house, and to make sure nobody finds out about it, Jem goes back for his pants. When he does, he finds that someone has mended them for him and left them on the fence. In Chapter 10, the children are again confronted with death when a rabid dog, Tim Johnson, walks unsteadily down the street. Atticus, whom Scout previously referred to as “feeble,” reveals himself to be an excellent shot when he puts the dog out of his misery. Once upon a time, Atticus even had the nickname “One-Shot Finch.” This impresses Scout and alters her opinion of him forever.

Meanwhile, tensions heighten in Maycomb after Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of Mr. Bob Ewell, one of the town drunks and perhaps the poorest white man in town. Being a man of high moral principles, Atticus refuses to pass on the case to another lawyer and instead stands firm in his conviction to defend Tom. Scout and Jem respect him for this, but the rest of the town doesn’t, and people gossip about it incessantly. Mrs. Dubose, a mean old woman who sits out on her porch and shouts at passersby, says such terrible things about Atticus that Jem cuts down her camellias with Scout’s baton. His punishment for this is to read to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon. During these visits, Mrs. Dubose lies in bed, looking very ill. It’s only after she dies that Atticus reveals to his kids that Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict and that in her final weeks she went cold turkey to kick her addiction. Part I ends with Atticus telling Jem that Mrs. Dubose was the bravest person he ever met.

Part II

In Part II, the focus of the novel shifts toward Tom Robinson’s trial, and the racism established in Part I intensifies. Scout and Jem, who have until now been shielded from the worst of it, see how segregation affects African Americans firsthand when Calpurnia takes them to her church, which is on the far side of town and called First Purchase. Atticus is out of town at this time, attending a meeting of the State Legislature, and doesn’t know about the church visit until after it happens. It prompts Aunt Alexandra, who has just moved into the Finches’ home, to scold Atticus for his lack of child-rearing skills. When Aunt Alexandra berates the kids about their manners and their lack of interest in their heritage, Atticus makes it clear that this is of no importance to him. This unites the Finch children against Aunt Alexandra.

Soon after Aunt Alexandra’s arrival, Scout discovers what she originally thinks is a snake under her bed, but which actually turns out to be Dill, who has run away from home because he doesn’t like his new stepfather. This incident adds a little levity to otherwise grim and serious events, like those of Chapter 15, when Atticus sits in front of the jail house to protect Tom Robinson from all the racist citizens of Maycomb. Late that night, a group of drunk men (some from Maycomb and some not) approach Atticus, intending, no doubt, to lynch Tom. Scout jumps in at the last second to save Atticus and stop the men, who are shamed by her presence. Thankfully, Mr. Underwood, the editor of The Maycomb Tribune, was standing watch over Atticus the whole time, carrying a double-barreled shotgun in case there was any trouble.

In the next chapter, Tom Robinson’s trial begins. It’s a “gala occasion,” as Scout puts it, and what seems like every person in Maycomb, black and white, comes to watch. Atticus spends the entire morning doing voir dire, or jury selection, and comes home for lunch around noon. Jem and Dill and Scout then decide—unbeknownst to Atticus—to go watch the trial that afternoon. As earlier, the courthouse is completely packed, and Scout and Jem have to climb up to the balcony with the Reverend Sykes to find seats in the “colored” section. Judge Taylor presides over the court and is impressively stern with the audience of people come to gawk at Tom. He threatens to fine people who don’t behave during the trial. Heck Tate is the first witness, and Atticus questions him about what he saw on the day of the alleged rape. Atticus trips him up a little when he asks if Mayella’s black eye was on the right or left side of her face. Heck Tate says left, then right. Then Mr. Ewell takes the stand and makes a show of accusing Tom of rape. Atticus then embarrasses him in front of everyone by proving that he’s left-handed and, thus, capable of giving Mayella a black eye on her right side. Jem finds this damning, but Scout doesn’t think it’s enough.

Next, Mayella takes the stand, afraid that Atticus will embarrass her like he did her father. Judge Taylor soothes her, though Jem suspects this is just a play for sympathy. Mayella, at nineteen and a half years old, is the eldest child in her family and has had to spend most of her time caring for her younger siblings, because her father certainly won’t. It’s a sad life, and Atticus makes a point of showing this to the audience, in the hopes that they’ll understand that her father, a drunk, is an antagonistic force in her life. Mayella has no friends. No money. No one to look out for her. And when she saw Tom Robinson, that polite man walking by her house on the way to work, Mayella invited him inside on the pretense of busting up a chiffarobe. Mayella says that’s when he started to choke her and beat her—with his right hand, not his left. Tom’s left arm hangs dead at his side, the product of an accident with a cotton gin. He couldn’t have given her that black eye, and that’s immediately clear when Mayella tells her story. It’s inconsistent with her father’s testimony. He’s lying, and so, Atticus suggests, is she.

When Tom takes the stand, the reader finally learns the truth: Mayella did lure him into the house with the promise of a nickel if he busted up a chiffarobe, but he never hurt her. In fact, she started coming onto him, moving in for a kiss, but when she saw her father in the window she screamed. Tom ran out of there as fast as he could, which made him look guilty, but he was innocent. It was Mr. Ewell who beat Mayella (and, presumably, raped her). Mr. Ewell blamed Tom for his crimes, both to keep him out of trouble and to save him from embarrassment, and Mayella does the same thing. Her reasons are somewhat different, though, because she doesn’t want anyone to know she tried to kiss an African American man. That’s taboo in racist Maycomb and would reflect poorly on her in court, which is why she’s so upset when Atticus tries to get the real truth out of her; she knows she can’t tell him. Tom knows that, too. He shouldn’t have helped her bust the chiffarobe, but he felt sorry for her. This upsets all the white people in the audience, because in their eyes, a black man has no right to feel sorry for a white person. When the prosecutor starts belittling Tom for this, Dill starts crying, and Scout has to take him outside.

Inside, Atticus makes his closing argument, telling the jury that Tom is innocent and that, even if they aren’t entirely convinced of this, they must be absolutely sure “beyond all reasonable doubt” that he’s guilty in order to convict him. Given what has come to light on the stand, it would seem impossible for them to have no doubts about Tom’s guilt, but this is Maycomb, Alabama, and the judge and jury are white, which means Tom’s apparent innocence isn’t enough to make up for the color of his skin in their eyes. That jury will never take the word of a black man over the word of a white one, regardless of how drunk, amoral, and ornery that white man is. Awkwardly, Atticus’ closing argument is interrupted by Calpurnia, who has come to inform him that his children have gone “missing.” Mr. Underwood informs them that the kids are in the balcony, and Atticus sends them home with Calpurnia to get their dinner. When they come back the jury is still out, which is in itself a victory. Had Atticus been less of a lawyer, the verdict would’ve been immediate. It’s a testament to his skill that the jury had to deliberate before giving the inevitable verdict: guilty.

The next morning, Atticus’ kitchen is full of gifts that the African American community sent him to show their gratitude to him for defending Tom. Miss Maudie, hearing about the verdict (as one of the few people who didn’t watch the trial), wakes up at five to bake the kids cake, in the hopes that this will make them feel a bit better. She suggests it was no accident Atticus was assigned to defend Tom—Judge Taylor might’ve done it on purpose to give Tom a fair shake. In fact, Atticus did so well that Mr. Ewell spits in his face outside the post office. As Atticus explains, race often comes between a person and their reason, making an otherwise logical or moral man turn into the kind of person who would, for instance, declare Tom guilty. At home, Atticus reveals to the kids that there was a Cunningham on the jury, and that this man wanted to acquit Tom, in part because Atticus had earned the Cunninghams’ respect that night outside the jail house. Scout reconsiders her dislike of Walter Cunningham because of this, but Aunt Alexandra balks when Scout asks if it would be alright for Walter to stay over at their house sometimes. Aunt Alexandra says Walter and the Cunninghams are “not [their] kind of folks.” It’s this behavior that leads Jem to say that he understands why Boo Radley stays inside: because he wants to.

In the aftermath of the trial, Aunt Alexandra attempts to return life to normal by hosting a lunch for her missionary circle. This proves to be an absurd experience for Scout, who’s forced to wear a dress, under which she defiantly continues to wear her britches. The ladies of the circle chat all afternoon about various hypocrites and Tom’s verdict, until finally Atticus comes home and says that Tom is dead—shot while attempting to escape from prison. Atticus and Calpurnia drive over to Tom’s house to give his wife, Helen, the news. Dill and Jem, who’d been out swimming at the time, rode in the car with Atticus and reported what they saw back to Scout. “She just fell down in the dirt,” Dill said, speaking of Helen when she heard the news. Everyone in Maycomb talked about it for a few days, then lost interest—except Mr. Underwood, who wrote an editorial saying that it’s a sin to kill a cripple. This echoes Atticus’ earlier statement about it being a sin to kill a mockingbird.

School starts up again in the fall, and with it, Jem and Scout’s daily trips past the Radleys’ house. Boo Radley has been largely absent from this second half of the book, and after Tom’s death, the kids aren’t really afraid of Boo anymore. Their lives revolve primarily around school and Atticus now. Scout relates a lesson her teacher gave on Adolf Hitler and democracy, defining the latter as “equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” This neatly frames the events of the subsequent chapter, in which Mr. Ewell stalks Helen in an attempt to intimidate her. This comes on the heels of Ewell getting and losing a job with the WPA and then attempting to break into Judge Taylor’s home in retribution for embarrassing him at the trial. Nobody thinks Ewell is dangerous, in large part because no one takes him seriously, and the town is more concerned with an incident where unknown assailants (children) sneak into the house of Misses Tutti and Frutti, two deaf women, and move all their furniture into their cellar one night. It appears for a moment that the novel is going to end on an easy note, with the children letting go of their superstitions, but Scout is still working up to how Jem broke his arm.

What happened was this: Scout was playing a ham in Maycomb’s Halloween pageant. No one in the immediate family was willing to see it but Jem, who walked her there in the dark, without his flashlight. On the way back, they hear a sound behind them and assume, at first, that it’s just one of Scout’s classmates trying to spook her. Then someone attacks them, and there’s a brief scuffle before the assailant, Mr. Ewell, falls, having been stabbed by Scout’s defender, Boo Radley, who carries Jem back to the house after his arm is broken. Scout doesn’t realize at first that this is her neighbor. Only after Dr. Reynolds arrives to take care of Jem and Heck Tate asks her to tell him what happened does Scout realize that the pale man standing in the corner is Boo. Atticus wants to tell people what Boo did and make him a hero, but Heck Tate tells him not to, calling it a “sin” to push such a shy man in the public’s eye. So they all keep Boo’s secret.

At the end of the novel, Scout walks Boo back to his house, stopping for a moment on his porch to look out at the town from his perspective: the children playing, leaves turning, Miss Maudie’s house burning. Scout tells Atticus that Boo was really nice. She has finally learned the lesson he tried to teach her earlier in the novel: that you can’t really understand a person until you walk in their shoes. Scout’s story may be about losing one’s innocence, but it’s also about coming of age, and that’s what makes this novel one of the most popular novels of all time.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Scout Finch, almost six years old, her brother Jem, four years older, and their little friend Dill (Charles Baker Harris), a visitor to Maycomb, Alabama, spend their summer thinking of ways to lure Boo Radley from his house. The children never have seen the recluse, but a few townspeople saw him some years ago when Boo reportedly stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors, was locked up for a time, and then was returned to his family. No one in Maycomb has seen him since.

Challenged by Dill, Jem, although fearful he will be killed by Boo—who “dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch” —runs and touches the Radley house. The children flee home and look back to see what appears to be an inside shutter move.

In the fall, Scout enters school and gets into trouble in class because she can already read and out of class for fighting with boys. During the year, she and Jem find children’s treasures in a knothole in an oak tree on the Radley place. Before they can put a thank-you note in the tree for the unknown benefactor, Nathan Radley, Boo’s brother, fills the knothole with cement.

The next summer Dill returns. Rolling inside a runaway tire, Scout slams into the Radley porch. She hears laughing inside as she recovers and runs. The three children play Boo Radley games until stopped by Jem and Scout’s father, Atticus.

The last night of Dill’s visit, the three try to look in a window of the Radley home. Jem raises his head to look in, and the children see a shadow coming toward them. They run and a shotgun roars. Jem catches his pants on a wire fence and has to leave them there. After Nathan tells the neighbors he fired at an intruder, Jem goes back for his pants and finds them not only mended but also neatly folded over the fence.

The next winter it snows in Maycomb, and Scout and Jem make their first snowman. During the cold snap, the house of a neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, burns down. Back home after shivering from the cold with the other onlookers, Scout discovers a blanket placed around her shoulders. The only adult in town not at the fire is Boo Radley. Jem tells his father of the treasures in the tree and about his mended pants, fixed by the strange man who never hurts them even when he has the chance.

Scout and Jem begin hearing their father called a “nigger-lover” around town, because of his appointment to defend a black man, Tom Robinson. Atticus warns them to hold their heads high and to not fight about it, but at Christmas Scout bloodies a boy cousin’s nose for repeating the accusation.

The brother and sister receive air rifles for Christmas but are cautioned by their father that to kill a mockingbird is a sin. Their friend Miss Maudie later explains that mockingbirds only make music and sing their hearts out for people.

One day a mad dog comes down the street, and the town’s sheriff asks Atticus to shoot it. He dispatches it with one shot. The children are told that their father, whom they think of as old and feeble, was once known as One-Shot Finch, the best shot in Maycomb County.

An old lady, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, baits Jem by calling Atticus a “nigger-lover.” Enraged, Jem knocks the tops off her flowers. His father orders Jem to read to the sick woman every afternoon for two months. After her death, Atticus tells the children Mrs. Dubose, although unpleasant, was the bravest woman he ever knew; she broke a morphine habit rather than die addicted. Real courage, the father says, is not a man with a gun in his hand. “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Scout and Jem go to an African American church with Cal (Calpurnia), their cook, who has raised the children since the death of their mother when Scout was two. A collection is taken for the family of Robinson, the man Atticus is to defend. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s proper sister, comes to live with them to make a lady out of the tomboy Scout and restore proper southern order to their home.

Before the trial, the sheriff and a group of citizens warn Atticus that death threats were made against the defendant. Atticus stays at the jail and, weaponless, faces a mob come to get the prisoner. Jem, Scout, and Dill arrive, and Scout kicks a man who grabs Jem. She recognizes the father of a schoolmate in the mob and embarrasses him by talking calmly about his son, until the man orders the mob to leave. Atticus says the children made the schoolmate’s father stand in his shoes for a minute and turned the animals in the mob back into humans.

At the trial, where Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the balcony with Calpurnia’s minister, Atticus demonstrates the untruth of the charges by Bob (Robert E. Lee) Ewell, a white man who lives on whiskey and welfare down by the dump, that Robinson beat and raped his daughter, Mayella. A doctor was not called to examine and treat the daughter, and the bruises on the right side of her face were caused by a left-handed man. Ewell is left-handed, and Robinson’s left arm is withered and useless.

Atticus asks Mayella on the witness stand if her father inflicted the abuse. She denies it, but Robinson testifies that the day of the alleged rape, she invited him in and kissed him. She said she never kissed a grown man—what her father did to her did not count—so she might as well kiss a “nigger.” Ewell arrived at that moment.

Jem and Scout believe that Robinson will be acquitted, but he is found guilty by the all-white jury. It is the word of a white person against a black one, and Robinson made the mistake of saying he felt sorry for a white person—Mayella.

After the trial, Ewell threatens Atticus in public. Robinson is killed after allegedly trying to escape from a prison exercise yard, giving up hope of getting justice in the white courts, although Atticus told him they had a chance on appeal.

Near Halloween, Scout and Jem attend a school pageant. On the way home in the dark, the children are attacked. Scout is saved from a knife thrust by the wire-mesh ham costume she is wearing. Jem struggles with the man and is thrown to the ground. A fourth person appears; there is a struggle, and Scout sees Jem being carried to their house by the stranger. Back home, Scout finds that Jem has a broken arm and the “stranger” who rescued him, standing silently in a corner, is Boo Radley.

The sheriff finds Ewell dead where the attack occurred, with a kitchen knife stuck up under his ribs. Atticus says that he believes Jem did it and does not want it covered up. The sheriff insists that Ewell fell on his own knife, and, besides, it would be a sin to drag someone with shy ways into the limelight. Atticus gives in and thanks Boo Radley for his children’s lives. Scout says it would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird” to expose their rescuer.

Scout escorts Boo Radley home. She never sees him again. Atticus, putting her to bed, says that most people are nice “when you finally see them.”


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Narrated by precocious Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, who ages from six to eight in the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird depicts the initiation of Scout, her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill into the adult world of prejudice and injustice. Growing up in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930’s, the three children are fascinated by the story of Arthur “Boo” Radley, who, following some youthful misdeed, has been forced into seclusion by his fanatically religious family and subsequently victimized by the community’s prejudice and fear. Although the children view him as a monster to be feared, they simultaneously desire to know and understand him. Meanwhile, their lives are disrupted by the appointment of Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, as defense attorney for an African American man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. The children’s introduction to racial prejudice and injustice is swift and severe. Although Finch clearly proves that Robinson is innocent, the all-white jury finds him guilty, and Robinson is subsequently killed in an escape attempt. Mayella’s father, Bob Ewell, revealed in the trial to be a liar, seeks revenge on Atticus Finch and, in a drunken rage, tries to murder Scout and Jem. Boo Radley, who had befriended the children in secret, rescues them. The novel ends with Atticus’s fear that society will pay for its injustice but also with the belief that in spite of his losing the case, a small step has been made toward racial justice.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s one published novel, is set in a small Southern town. People there are defined by gender, race, and social class, forced to play the roles that history and gossip have assigned to them. When the book was published, it was seen primarily as an attack on racial prejudice. However, it is now more correctly viewed as opposing all infringements on the rights of people to be themselves.

In Maycomb, Alabama, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her brother Jem are being reared by their widower father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer. Atticus is trying to teach his children respect for others as the individuals they are. Thus Atticus reprimands his children for prejudging their neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley, who has been shut up in his house since attacking his father years before. Atticus also points out the difference between superficial manners and the behavior of a real lady, such as the unconventional Miss Maudie Atkinson. Atticus even insists that the children respect the bigoted Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, who must be admired for her battle against addiction. Atticus explains that there are great differences between people of the same class. Though poor, Walter Cunningham is an upright man, while the equally poor Bob Ewell is reprehensible.

In the second part of the novel, Scout and Jem see their father’s principles put to the test. He undertakes to defend a worthy black man, Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused of raping Ewell’s daughter. Viewing Tom through the eyes of prejudice, Maycomb’s white citizens convict him, and he is killed. Atticus has, however, made a difference. Maycomb’s blacks now know that at least some, or one, white will treat them fairly. Moreover, before the novel ends, Walter Cunningham has saved Atticus from a mob, and Boo Radley has rescued Jem and Scout from the murderous Bob Ewell.

Harper Lee’s contemporaries recognized the worth of her novel by awarding it the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1961. Decades later, To Kill a Mockingbird remains a classic assertion of the need for human beings to respect others, as they live their lives and search for their identities.


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1961. It was adapted into a movie starring Gregory Peck in 1962. The movie earned an Academy Award for the script, and Peck won an award for best actor. Critics have pointed out the autobiographical elements of the novel, suggesting that Harper Lee, while growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, was affected by racial tensions resulting from the lack of employment opportunities for blacks and poor whites during the Depression. Her father was a lawyer and Lee attended law school before deciding to write full-time. Biographers maintain that when Lee was Scout’s age, she became aware of the case known as the Scottsboro trials, in which nine young black men were tried on rape charges involving two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.

In the book, an adult Scout reflects on growing up during the Depression in fictitious Maycomb, Alabama, with her older brother, Jem, and her father, Atticus. Calpurnia, their black maid, has taken care of Scout’s family since her mother died when Scout was two years old. During the three-year span of the novel, Scout and Jem, with Atticus’s guidance, learn about the world around them.

The first section of the novel, which is divided into two parts, begins with the narrator reflecting on the year that her brother’s arm was broken, and she attempts to trace the events that led to the accident. She describes her lineage, the major families that make up Maycomb, and the caste system that is deeply embedded into the psyche of all who live there. When Scout is six, she and Jem meet Dill, a boy who has come from Meridian, Mississippi, to spend the summer with his aunt. Together, the children devise plans they hope will get their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley, to come out of his home. They have heard rumors about his life, and they begin to make up stories of their own. When Atticus learns that the children are bothering the Radley family, he encourages them to stop, but their fascination with Boo never diminishes. Boo also becomes interested in them. He leaves them small gifts in the knothole of a tree, mends Jem’s pants when they are caught in a fence, and surreptitiously covers Scout with a blanket while she stands watching fire consume a neighbor’s home. As the novel progresses, the children’s image of Boo slowly evolves from that of an oddity to that of a human being capable of love.

At Christmas, Scout and Jem are given air rifles and a dictum: “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus’s command foreshadows the sins of the immoral townspeople presented in the second section of the novel. Some critics have found that the statement is used to teach the children to do good rather than evil. Atticus also tells Scout and Jem that it is evil to take advantage of people who are disenfranchised.

The second part of the novel reveals the children’s growing maturity as they watch the events unfold when Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a poor, white woman. Atticus tells Scout, “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man,” suggesting that it is his Christian duty to help those in need regardless of their race or class. When Scout and Jem visit Calpurnia’s church, they learn that segregation extends to religious practices though Calpurnia maintains that whites and blacks serve the same God. This part of the novel also shows Scout’s growing understanding of the contradictory behavior of the adult women she trusts and is told she must learn to emulate. Aunt Alexandra moves into the Finch home in Maycomb to help Scout develop into a young lady. The women at Aunt Alexandra’s Maycomb Ladies’ Missionary Society gathering speak of the love and compassion they feel for Africans though they seem to despise the descendants of Africans who live in Maycomb and work for them.

Atticus clearly proves Tom Robinson’s innocence by arguing that a left-handed person abused Mayella and by showing that an accident during childhood left Tom’s left hand useless. Despite this, Tom, a symbolic mockingbird, is convicted and sentenced to prison. The children are surprised and hurt to learn that the people in their community allow racism to prevent justice from prevailing. Mayella’s father, Bob, enraged by Atticus’s ability to reveal that he and his daughter falsely accused Tom, tries to stab Scout and Jem. Though Bob breaks Jem’s arm, Boo Radley defends the children, killing Bob in the process. In an effort to protect this particular mockingbird from public scrutiny, the sheriff decides he will not arrest Boo. Echoing the beginning, the end of the novel focuses on Atticus and Scout as they sit by Jem’s bed waiting for his broken arm to heal.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

To Kill a Mockingbird has been discussed by many critics simply in terms of racial prejudice; however, it is clear that in both the novel and the film the theme is more universal than a portrayal of the evil of racial prejudice. That evil is shown as an example of humankind’s intolerance. In all of its forms, people’s inhumanity to others is the real antagonist of the enlightened. In the novel, there are many minor instances of prejudice, including the encounter between Jem and Mrs. Dubose, with which part 1 of the book ends. These incidents prepare for the concentration on the two major plot lines in part 2. Neither of the plot lines dominates the novel. Structurally, they are brilliantly interwoven. Thematically, they complement each other.

The first of these plots is introduced in the first few sentences of the novel, when the narrator says that the story to be told really began when Dill Harris got the idea of getting Arthur (Boo) Radley to come out. The setting is the small town of Maycomb, Alabama; the time is the mid-1930’s. Boo Radley is the neighbor of the Finches. When he was a teenager, he got into minor trouble, and since that time, he has been imprisoned in his home by his father, who is a religious fanatic. Because no one in the community ever sees Boo, much less gets to know him, everyone has come to fear him.

At first, the children share this fear. They dare each other to run up to the house where Boo is incarcerated, as if he were a supernatural monster. Gradually, however, they become aware that Boo is observing them and that he wishes them no harm. Indeed, in his loneliness, he reaches out to the children. He keeps Jem from getting in trouble by returning his torn pants, mended; he leaves the children little presents in a hollow tree; he even gets near enough to put a blanket around Scout when she is standing outside to watch a neighbor’s house burn. Once the children begin to share secrets with Boo, they have admitted him to their world. He is no longer a stranger; he is a friend. The children have surmounted the prejudice of their community.

There are many parallels between this plot line and the second plot line, which involves a black man, Tom Robinson. Like Boo, Robinson is imprisoned within his community, but unlike Boo, Robinson has never committed any action that might produce punishment. His only crime is to have been born black in a society that has certain assumptions about black people—among them, the assumption that black men always desire white women. That assumption is based on another assumption: that white people are always superior to black people.

Like Boo Radley, Tom Robinson is a kind person, drawn toward those he perceives as helpless. Certainly the white girl Mayella Ewell is pitiable. The entire community, black and white, looks down upon the Ewell tribe, which is headed by the despicable Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father. Bob Ewell is the only character in To Kill a Mockingbird who has no virtues. He is mean, abusive, filthy, and shiftless. When he is drunk or simply in a bad mood, he beats his children. Given this family situation, it would be natural for anyone to respond to a plea from one of those children. From time to time, when Tom is passing by the Ewell place, Mayella asks him to help her with some heavy task that her father has assigned her to do, and innocently, Tom does what she asks. Unfortunately, like Boo Radley, Mayella is desperately lonely, and she does the unthinkable: She makes a sexual advance to Tom. Shocked and terrified, he leaves; shocked at her own conduct, she connives with her father to accuse Tom of rape. Thus it is Tom’s compassionate attempt to transcend community prejudice, to treat an outcast white girl as a friend, which puts him in peril and which finally, despite the impassioned legal defense by Atticus Finch, costs Tom his life.

There is no question that both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are acting correctly when they reach out to others. By example, Atticus Finch is attempting to teach this kind of behavior to both his children and his community. Yet Atticus would be the first to admit that there is danger in defying prejudice, in breaking down barriers that have been erected over the years and throughout the generations. Tom’s moral action is misinterpreted; to believe him would be to admit that a white girl could desire a black man, and thus to upset the entire social hierarchy. Therefore the community must doom Tom, even though many people secretly do believe him. Boo Radley, too, runs a risk by befriending the children, not only from his tyrannical father but also from the law. When Bob Ewell ambushes Jem and Scout, planning to maim or kill them as a revenge upon Atticus, Boo goes to their defense and in the scuffle kills Bob Ewell. Atticus Finch—the man of honor, no matter what the consequences—believes that he must turn Radley over to the sheriff; however, the sheriff refuses to prosecute Radley and persuades Atticus on this occasion to put justice ahead of the letter of the law and to let Radley go free. If the timid recluse had been sent to prison, he would have died as surely as Tom Robinson dies when he attempts to flee.

If compassion in the midst of prejudice costs Tom Robinson his life and puts Boo Radley in peril, it can nevertheless sometimes win a victory. During Tom’s arrest and trial, the community tension mounts, and with it, hostility toward Atticus. Finally, a mob gathers at the jail where Tom is being held; outside the jail, Atticus is on guard. Undoubtedly, he would have been attacked, even killed, if a past kindness had not been remembered. Scout had befriended the child of one of the members of the mob. Innocently unaware of the danger, Scout runs to her father and singles out that other father with inquiries about his son. Shamefacedly, he answers, the anger is dispelled, and Atticus is safe. Although she is a realist, Harper Lee refuses to be a cynic. If there is evil in humanity, there is also good, and sometimes the good is recognized and even defended.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

When To Kill a Mockingbird first appeared in 1960, most critics praised it; the following year it won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Set in a small Southern town in the 1930’s, the novel focuses on the trial of an African American man accused of raping a white woman; it is narrated by the young daughter of the man’s defense lawyer. The novel rapidly found a niche in young adult literature collections; by the mid- 1960’s it was widely read in junior and senior high school English classes. At the same time, however, some parents objected to the book’s inclusion in school classes, calling it immoral and citing its use of profanity and explicit details of violence, especially rape. Some adults also complained that the novel depicted relations among blacks and whites unfairly by suggesting widespread bigotry by Southern whites. Others argued that the novel presented religion in an unfavorable light.

Most early complaints about the novel came from the South. In Hanover County, Virginia, for example, the local school board attempted to remove the book from county public schools on the grounds of its immorality. When national news coverage focused on the issue, however, the school board tried to dismiss the issue as a misunderstanding.

Meanwhile, attempts to censor the novel spread into the East and Midwest. In 1967 controversy over the novel arose at Lewis S. Mills Regional High School in Unionville, Connecticut. The issue was hotly debated, but a strong defense of the novel by the head of the school’s English department defeated the bid for censorship. Attempts to ban the book continued elsewhere, however, and the novel tied for eighth place on the list of books most frequently banned from public schools between 1966 and 1975.

Attacks on Lee’s novel continued throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. A Vernon, New York, minister protested the availability of “filthy, trashy sex novels” such as To Kill a Mockingbird in public school libraries. In addition, a new line of attack emerged from African Americans who wanted the book banned because they felt it included bigotry and racial slurs. In the 1990’s complaints centered again on the book’s being a “filthy, trashy novel,” which includes obscene words; the novel continued to appear on annual lists of works challenged in public schools and libraries. Meanwhile, the novel remained one of the most widely read among junior high and high school students in the United States.


(Novels for Students)

Part One
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird depicts the life of its young narrator, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, in...

(The entire section is 1,459 words.)