To Kill a Mockingbird Characters
October 11, 2023
Just like the book itself, many To Kill a Mockingbird characters are classics. Atticus Finch, Scout, and Boo Radley are household names. Here, I’ll go through the central To Kill a Mockingbird characters and try to break them down in terms of their attributes, development, and significance to the novel overall.
Jean Louise Finch—Scout—is the book’s narrator and main character. Within the first few pages, we understand that Jean Louise is telling the story as an adult, looking back on a series of childhood events that culminate in her older brother breaking his arm at the age of 12. The fact that the story is told retrospectively allows Harper Lee to inhabit two perspectives simultaneously—a child’s and an adult’s. Lee interweaves those perspectives masterfully. In fact, that interplay—between a child’s Manichean worldview and an adult’s recognition that reality isn’t always black and white—mirrors the novel’s central theme.
When the story kicks off, Scout is six. She lives with Jem, her older brother, and Atticus, her widowed father, in Maycomb, Alabama. The year is 1933. Scout is a punk in the best sense of the word. She flouts the rigid gender roles that polite Maycomb society is all too keen to enforce. She’s curious and unintimidated, she wears overalls instead of dresses, and she doesn’t care at all about manners and gentility. She’s also precocious, though it’s easy to forget that her poignant insights often come from Jean Louise, the adult narrator. Nevertheless, Scout is an enthusiastic reader and writer.
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At the heart of the novel is Scout’s moral development. Six-year-old Scout is a moral purist: there are no moral ambiguities or grey zones in her worldview. If Burris Ewell doesn’t have to go to school, then neither should she. When Walter Cunningham eats lunch a bit unconventionally, she complains. But Scout takes her moral cues from Atticus, and, in part, from Calpurnia, the family cook. Atticus explains that we can’t condemn without first empathizing, and Calpurnia delivers roughly the same message. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus tells Scout. “There’s some folks who don’t eat like us,” Cal says.
As Scout grows up, her moral understanding of the world becomes more sophisticated. After the Tom Robinson trial, she begins to pick up on all the ways in which otherwise good people engage in morally reprehensible behavior. Her teacher, for example, espouses equal rights and justice for all in the classroom, but spews racist, hateful rhetoric towards Black people on the street. In the novel’s last scene, Scout embodies Atticus’s ideal of empathy, as she imagines the world as her neighbor Boo Radley sees it.
Atticus is Scout and Jem’s father. He’s a lawyer and a descendant of a family with Maycomb County roots that stretch back generations. He’s a single father (his wife and the mother of his children died when Scout was just two years old) and a liberal parent—Scout and Jem call him by his first name. But he’s strict when strictness is called for. Like Scout, he bucks many of the traditional Maycombian gender norms. He’s bookish and doesn’t work with his hands. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and he doesn’t play tackle football. Scout even calls him “feeble.” But when Atticus shoots a rabid dog and it’s revealed that he’s renowned for his proficiency with a rifle, Scout adjusts her assessment of him.
Atticus’s ethics are grounded in a radical empathy and the principle that justice ought to be blind. His politics are progressive for his time. He calls out white supremacy and racial subjugation as abhorrent. And he chooses to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man unfairly accused of rape, despite Maycomb’s collective pearl-clutching at his decision. Not only does Atticus take his defense of Tom seriously, he totally dismantles the opposition’s case.
Above all else, Atticus is a man of principle. He puts himself in harm’s way when a lynch mob comes for Tom, and his defense of Tom makes him and his children a target of retributive violence. He’s unflappable and functions as the book’s—and Scout’s—moral compass.
Jem is Scout’s older brother. At the beginning of the book, he’s a typical older brother. Scout looks up to him, and he has a certain authority over her. But he’s not a tyrannical older sibling. Even as Jem begins to mature and distance himself from her, he treats Scout fairly and with respect. Together, they play pretend and go on adventures.
One of those adventures involves luring Boo Radley out of his house. Jem is totally enthralled and terrified by the myth of Boo Radley. Even after Atticus tells him to leave Boo alone, Jem hatches another scheme to spot Boo. The plan fails horribly, and Jem snags and loses his pants on a fence in the process (though Boo sews them up for him). Jem also can’t comprehend when Atticus defends a member of the lynch mob that comes for Tom as a “basically good man.” Like Scout, Jem’s morality has no room for ambiguity.
Tom Robinson’s unfair conviction and subsequent murder dramatically speed up Jem’s moral development. Whatever illusions he might’ve had about the inherent goodness of the Maycomb public—or humanity in general—is completely shattered by the trial. When Scout asks him about how Miss Gates can condemn the Nazis in one breath and make racist remarks against Black people in the next, Jem loses it: “I never wanta hear about that courthouse again, ever, ever, you hear me?”
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Of all the To Kill a Mockingbird characters, Boo Radley might be the one that most embodies the book’s themes. Boo is the Finches’ reclusive neighbor. It’s rumored that he hasn’t left his basement in years. Boo is also rumored to be the town ghost—whenever something strange and ominous happens in Maycomb, it’s attributed to Boo.
But Boo, like Tom Robinson, is a victim of prejudice. He’s not a violent lunatic. Nor is he a malevolent spirit. It’s worth noting that Atticus recognizes this from the very beginning, whereas Scout, Jem, and Dill are captivated by the rumors surrounding Boo. In reality, Boo is kind and protective. He leaves gifts for Scout and Jem in the recess of a tree in his yard, and he cloaks Scout in a warm blanket the night Miss Maudie’s house burns down.
In one of the novel’s final scenes, he saves Scout and Jem from a murderous, vengeful Bob Ewell (this is the moment Scout refers to in the book’s first line, when Jem breaks his arm—it’s Bob Ewell who breaks it when he attacks them). Scout’s moral transformation is complete, or on the way to becoming complete, when she sees the world through Boo’s eyes and recognizes his humanity.
Boo is one of the book’s metaphorical “mockingbirds”. The idea of mockingbirds as a symbol of moral innocence and purity is first brought up by Atticus when he tells Jem to remember that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That symbol is built upon by Miss Maudie, who explains what Atticus meant to Scout. Mockingbirds, she says, don’t do anything wrong—that’s why it’s a sin to kill them. Boo fits the description. He’s a good person who’s massively misunderstood—and derided—by the Maycomb community at large.
Tom Robinson is Atticus’s client, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. He is an honest and hardworking person who strikes up a friendship with Mayella Ewell, the poor white woman he’s accused of having assaulted. A previous accident has rendered Tom’s left arm immobile, which is relevant because Atticus demonstrates that a left-handed assailant could not have been Mayella’s attacker. Despite the absence of any credible evidence against him, an all-white jury convicts him. Atticus wants to appeal, but Tom, on some level, understands that the justice system is set up against him. He attempts to escape from jail and is shot and killed.
Tom is another of the To Kill a Mockingbird characters that can be called a “mockingbird.” He’s a fundamentally good, innocent person who’s subjected to the horrors of American racism. Mr. Underwood, the town reporter, compares Tom’s murder to the “senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children.”
On to the more minor—but still significant—To Kill a Mockingbird characters. Calpurnia is the Finches’ hired cook. She’s Black and acts as a mother figure to Scout. She’s a strict disciplinarian and commands respect from Scout. In fact, Scout shows more deference to Calpurnia than she does to Aunt Alexandra, who moves in with the Finches to be a “feminizing” force for Scout.
Calpurnia acts as a window to the Black community, both for Scout and Jem and for the reader. She takes the children to her church and introduces them to the pastor there. As a result, Scout and Jem can sit in the Black section of the court during the Tom Robinson trial. Calpurnia is intelligent, and along with Atticus, works to instill a strong moral code in both Scout and Jem.
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Dill Harris is one of my favorite To Kill a Mockingbird characters. He’s from Mississippi, but he summers in Maycomb, and he comes to be best friends with Scout and Jem. Dill’s a storyteller with a fanciful imagination. It’s Dill who’s most fascinated by the figure of Boo Radley, and it’s Dill who masterminds the plot to lure Boo Radley out of his house.
But Dill is a kind and empathetic person at his core. When Mr. Gilmer, the prosecutor in Tom Robinson’s trial, uses racial epithets during his cross-examination of Tom, Dill breaks down in tears and rushes out of the courtroom. In fact, when Scout downplays and perpetuates Gilmer’s racism, saying that that’s to be expected because, after all, Tom’s “just a Negro,” Dill rebukes her. “I don’t care one speck,” he says. Nobody has a right to treat anyone like that, no matter their race.
To Kill a Mockingbird Characters – Additional Resources
If you are looking for additional high school literature resources, we invite you to visit the High School Success section of the College Transitions blog. If you are looking for other To Kill a Mockingbird resources specifically, click on the links below: