To Kill a Mockingbird Summary
August 31, 2023
I last read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in the 10th grade. And, to be honest, I can’t say that the book made much of an impression on me. My experience was probably shaped by the recognition that reading it is a must, an academic rite of passage that every American high schooler, at some point, has to endure. So as I picked it some 20 years later, I expected to be underwhelmed by Scout, Atticus, and the rest of the Maycomb crew. But I wasn’t. In fact, the book caught me off guard. It deals with the heavy themes of racism, structural violence, and socioeconomic inequality—and it still managed to be hilarious and emotionally tender. The narration was at times young adult-y, at others high literary. It’s steeped in the traditions of Southern Gothic literature and it’s also an innocence-shattering Bildungsroman. What follows is a To Kill a Mockingbird summary that hopefully captures some of the book’s complexity and depth.
To Kill a Mockingbird Summary – Part 1
Jean Louise Finch—Scout—is a six-year-old girl living in Maycomb, Alabama in the year 1933. She lives with her older brother Jem and their father Atticus, a local lawyer—Scout’s mom passed away when Scout was just two. Scout is a bit of a punk. She’s brash, uncompromising, inquisitive, and shrugs off the town’s parochial conceptions of femininity. She prefers overalls to dresses, reading and tree climbing to manners and gentility.
One day Dill rolls into town. He’s from Mississippi, but spends summers with his aunt in Maycomb. Dill is somewhat of an oddball. He’s got a knack for on-the-spot mythmaking and an infectious interest in the macabre and fantastical. Scout, Jem, and Dill become inseparable, and the three spend the summer tinkering in their treehouse and performing renditions of Edgar Rice Burroughs plays.
Eventually, Dill’s morbid sense of curiosity latches on to something: the Radley Place, a sagging shell of a house down the road from the Finches’, where the mysterious Arthur “Boo” Radley lives. Maycomb engages in a type of small-town magical thinking when it comes to Boo and the Radley house. Boo, according to the town rumor mill, hasn’t left his house in years. He’s supposed to have stabbed his father with a pair of scissors, and a “malevolent phantom,” is said to haunt the place, coming out only at night to stalk the streets and prey on the townspeople’s pets. Dill wants to concoct a way to lure Boo out of his house.
To Kill a Mockingbird Summary – Part 1 (Continued)
Before much can come of Dill’s schemes, though, summer ends, the school year starts, and he returns to Mississippi. Scout is a precocious first-grader. On the first day of school, she gives her teacher, new-to-Maycomb Miss Caroline, a lesson on the history of some of Maycomb’s inhabitants. It feels as if Scout teaches Miss Caroline more than the other way around. Walter Cunningham, Scout explains, won’t accept handouts because his family doesn’t have the means to pay them back, and the Ewells only show up to school on day one—to appease the town truant officer.
The school year passes slowly. Things get slightly more interesting when Scout, on her way home from school, notices that someone has left something in the hollow of a tree outside the Radley Place: two pieces of chewing gum. She chews both pieces but Jem, fearing the bad juju of the Radley house, makes her spit them out. On the last day of school, Jem and Scout find two “Indian-head” pennies left in the hollow of the same tree. This time, they reason that it’s okay to keep them.
Summer comes, Dill returns to Maycomb, and he immediately sets about trying to lure Boo Radley out of his house. Jem and Dill attach a note to the end of a fishing rod and try to stick it in the window of the Radley Place. Atticus catches them. He admonishes them for “tormenting” Boo. Atticus seems to know what they—and the rest of Maycomb—don’t: that Boo is not a ghost, or an idea, or a repository for the town’s collective fears and superstitions. He’s just a man, a flesh and blood human being.
Part 1 (Continued)
Jim and Dill heed Atticus’s advice until the night before Dill returns to Mississippi. They hatch a plan: to sneak onto the Radley property and peek through the window. Scout tags along. The three creep under the Radley’s wire fence, and Jem manages to make it all the way to the porch. But then they see a shadow come gliding across the porch. They book it. A shotgun blast shatters the silence. In their rush to escape, Jem snags his pants on the fence and abandons them there. When the kids return home and run into Atticus, Dill comes up with an explanation for Jem’s pantslessness—he won them in a bet. Later that night, Jem sneaks out again, this time to retrieve his pants. He manages to get his pants back, and he discovers that they’ve been sewn up for him.
Scout starts the second grade. It’s a slog for her—it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating—but her days become a little more intriguing when she begins to discover objects in the Radley tree again. This time it’s a ball of twine, followed by more chewing gum, a spelling bee medal, a pocket watch, and two soap carvings resembling herself and Jem. Someone is giving them gifts. The next day, however, they find that the hollow has been filled in with cement. According to Nathan Radley, Boo’s brother, the tree is dying. That’s why he plugged the hole. To Jem (and Atticus), the tree looked perfectly healthy.
To Kill a Mockingbird Summary – Part 1 (Continued)
Meanwhile, Atticus has a new case. He’s defending Tom Robinson, a Black man who’s been accused of raping a white woman. Scout’s been getting taunted about it at school—Cecil Jacobs has been using a racial slur to deride Atticus for defending Black people. Scout asks her father why he’s taken the case. Atticus explains that he’s defending Tom not because he thinks he can win—it’s a foregone conclusion that a white, Maycomb jury will convict Tom regardless of the evidence—but because it’s the right thing to do.
Sometime after Christmas, Scout reflects that Atticus is “feeble.” Just as she eschews many of the Maycombian gender norms, so too does Atticus. But Scout is ashamed of her father’s lack of “manliness”: he’s older than the fathers of their classmates, he works in an office, doesn’t play tackle football, doesn’t hunt or fish, doesn’t drink or smoke, and perhaps worst of all, he wears glasses.
One Saturday Jem and Scout happen upon a rabid dog. They rush back to their house to tell Calpurnia, their hired Black cook who also performs the occasional motherly duty. Cal alerts the neighborhood that there’s a mad dog on the loose and fetches Atticus and Mr. Heck Tate, the town’s sheriff. Even though it’s his responsibility, Mr. Tate asks Atticus to shoot the dog. Atticus, it turns out, is well-renowned for his ability with a rifle. He even has a nickname: “One-Shot Finch.” This is news to Scout and Jem. Reluctantly, Atticus shoulders the sheriff’s rifle, walks outside, and kills the dog with a single shot. Later, Miss Maudie, who lives down the street, asks Scout if she’s still ashamed of Atticus. Scout replies: “No ma’am.”
To Kill a Mockingbird Summary – Part 2
Jem turns twelve. He’s becoming more independent and begins to distance himself from Scout. Around this time the state legislature is called into session. As a result, Atticus is away from home for weeks. Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to Maycomb’s Black church for Sunday service. There the children learn that Tom Robinson has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell. The Ewells are poor, ill-educated, and live behind the town dump in what was once a “Negro” cabin.
Atticus’s upcoming trial makes him—and his children—the subject of much town gossip and derision. Scout asks Atticus what rape is, and he gives her a straightforward answer. But it’s clear that she hasn’t quite understood. In the meantime, Aunt Alexandra—Atticus’s sister—has come to live with the Finches. She’s there to give the children a “feminizing” presence. And Scout discovers her summertime pal Dill hiding out under her bed—he’s run away from home.
Summary – Part 2 (Continued)
Tom’s trial is approaching, and he’s moved to the Maycomb jail. Mr. Tate pays Atticus a visit—the sheriff is worried about the possibility of a lynch mob coming for Tom. The next night, Atticus heads into town with the family car. Scout and Jem have no choice but to sneak out and tail him. They discover him reading a book under a solitary lightbulb in the town jail, oblivious to the swarm of moths swirling above his head.
Suddenly, four dusty cars swoop off the highway and pull up to the jail. Men begin to get out of the cars, their faces obscured by the darkness. They demand that Atticus step aside—they’re there to lynch Tom. Atticus refuses to move away. The tension ratchets up, but before it reaches a breaking point, Scout shakes loose of Jem and rushes into the crowd. From her mood and tone, it’s clear she doesn’t grasp the gravity of the situation: she greets her dad with a jolly, “H-ey, Atticus!” Then she recognizes a face: Mr. Cunningham, the father of her classmate, Walter. Scout tells him that they’re friends, and she asks him to say hi to him for her. It’s a small human moment, but it’s enough to make Mr. Cunningham ashamed. He tells Scout that he’ll pass her message along. The rest of the men clear out.
To Kill a Mockingbird Summary – The Trial
The trial starts. According to the prosecution’s side of the story, on the night of November 21, Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father, came back to his house, peered through the window, and saw Tom Robinson raping his daughter. Tom fled, Mayella appeared bruised and beaten, and Bob Ewell called the sheriff. During cross-examinations, Atticus establishes that Mayella’s injuries were concentrated on the right side of her face. Bob Ewell is left-handed. A left-handed attacker is more likely to have struck the right side of the victim’s face. Plus, a horrible accident has left Tom’s left arm immobile.
Mayella Ewell takes the stand. She’s snippy with Atticus. Her story is flimsy—her answers to Atticus’s questions change, her recollections are hazy—but she’s indignant nonetheless. She’s outraged, in fact, that Atticus is questioning her. Her word as a white woman should be enough, she says in so many words, to condemn a Black man—regardless of how spurious the evidence against him is.
To Kill a Mockingbird Summary – The Trial (Continued)
Finally, Tom takes the stand. He says that over time, Mayella struck up a sort of friendship with him. He’d do chores for her as he passed by the Ewell place on his way to work. One night, Mayella came on to him, hugging him around the waist and trying to get him to kiss her. Tom resisted Mayella’s advances, and during the struggle Bob Ewell appeared at the window. Bob Ewell berated his daughter for being a “whore,” and Tom fled.
The trial ends. The jury leaves to deliberate. Unbeknownst to Atticus, Jem and Scout were in the courthouse throughout the proceedings. To Scout and Jem, a guilty verdict is unthinkable. The truth is clear: Bob Ewell witnessed Mayella make sexual advances on a Black man, and, in a spurt of vindictive rage, he assaulted her. Then, to resolve the cognitive dissonance wrought by his racism, he accused Tom Robinson of rape. The truth is on Tom’s—and Atticus’s—side. The jury deliberates well into the night. That’s a good sign. Around 11 o’clock, the members of the jury march in, careful to avoid eye contact with Tom. Scout realizes what’s happened. They deliver a guilty verdict. The courtroom empties.
To Kill a Mockingbird summary – The Aftermath of the Trial
In the immediate aftermath of the trial, Jem is devastated. His childhood illusions about Maycomb—namely, that its populace is made up of fundamentally good people—are shattered. The next day, Maycomb’s Black community showers the Finch household with gifts to show their appreciation for Atticus.
Later, the children receive some disturbing news: Bob Ewell confronted Atticus in public. Ewell spit on Atticus and vowed to get revenge. Atticus explains that he destroyed his “last shred of credibility”—that’s why Ewell spit on him. Meanwhile, Tom has been sent to a faraway prison. Atticus thinks Tom has a good chance of being pardoned via the appeals process.
The Aftermath of the Trial (Continued)
In August, the Finches receive even more devastating news: Tom is dead. He attempted to escape from prison and was shot. Atticus and Calpurnia deliver the news to the Robinson family. Tom’s unrightful death does nothing to shake Maycomb out of its racist stupor. Most people simply muse that that kind of irrational behavior—attempting to escape from jail—is to be expected from Black people. Of course, his attempt to escape wasn’t irrational at all. Tom recognized that there could never be salvation for him within the criminal justice system. So he ran.
School starts up again. But this school year is different for Scout. Tom Robinson’s trial and murder have changed her. For example: Scout’s third-grade teacher, Miss Gates, tells the class about the persecution of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. The Nazis are evil, she says, because they violate the principle of equality. Everyone deserves the same rights. Scout can’t stomach the hypocrisy. She thinks back to the day of the trial, and remembers hearing Miss Gates spew the same boilerplate, hateful, racist rhetoric as everyone else in Maycomb.
To Kill a Mockingbird Summary – Final Chapters
On Halloween, the town organizes a pageant at the school. Every child portrays a food, and Scout gets a part as a ham. Atticus and Aunt Alexandra can’t bring themselves to go, so Jem walks Scout to the school. The way there is dark, and Cecil Jacobs uses the opportunity to jump out and give them a scare. The show happens, though Scout nearly misses her cue.
Scout and Jem go home the same way they came. It’s so dark they can barely see. They hear the faint rustling of footsteps nearby and think it’s Cecil again. But when they call out, Cecil doesn’t reply. The noise continues. They’re being followed. They’ve almost reached the better-illuminated road when their pursuer attacks them. Scout runs, but her costume is awkward, and she trips and falls. She feels the wire mesh of her costume crunch and compress around her body. Jem pries Scout free, but he’s ripped back into the darkness. Scout hears a sickening crack. Jem screams. Then, suddenly, everything is still. Scout looks for Jem but sees only a whiskey-drunk man lying on the ground. In the distance, a man is walking toward her house with Jem in his arms.
Final Chapters (Continued)
Scout reaches the safety of home. Atticus summons Heck Tate and Dr. Reynolds. Jem isn’t dead, just unconscious. He has a broken arm. The man who carried Jem home is there, but Scout doesn’t recognize him. When Mr. Tate arrives he informs Atticus that Bob Ewell is lying dead under a tree down the road. He’s been stabbed in the heart.
The group continues to piece the story together. There’s a gouge in Scout’s costume; had she not been wearing it, Ewell would have killed her. And then Scout realizes who’s standing in the corner. It’s Boo Radley. He saved Jem and killed Ewell. Heck Tate insists on ruling Ewell’s death an accident, saying he fell on his knife.
Scout walks Boo home. As she drops him off, she turns around and looks at her neighborhood. She realizes she’s never seen it from this angle. For a moment, she jumps into Boo’s head, imagines the world through his eyes. When she returns home, Atticus is sitting beside Jem. She joins them, and Atticus reads to her until she falls asleep.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Additional Resources:
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