To Kill a Mockingbird Book summary
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was written by American author Harper Lee. The book’s themes of racial, gender, and class inequalities have been controversial since its first publication in 1960, generating arguments that it deals with these issues too harshly, while simultaneously inspiring other claims that they are addressed too gently. The book’s language has been criticized as well, particularly for its generous use of racial epithets and certain vulgarities. The book nonetheless earned a Pulitzer Prize, and has remained a staple of literature in schools for over 60 years.
It is a “semi-fictional” autobiography, written from the perspective of Jean Louise Finch, known as Scout, a girl growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression years. She is six-years-old at the opening of the book, which spans the subsequent three years. The author has insisted many times that the book is entirely fictional, but acknowledges that many specific experiences parallel actual events during her own childhood. In fact, a major character in the book, her friend Dill, grew up to be known as famous author and actor Truman Capote.
While the book addresses the weighty issues of racial prejudice and class discrimination, it does so with the liberal use of humor, as well as with suspenseful adventure. The narrative style easily weaves the perspective of a young, and very tomboyish, girl and her childish and comical misperceptions, with that of the older, wiser adult who is sharing events of her recollection. Much of the language used generates a sense of rural, pre-war America, with southern slang and frequent mispronunciations, while observational asides demonstrate the maturity and deeply reflective nature of the “older” narrator. The book is divided into two parts, with a total of 31 chapters. Part One sets the background, and is generally light, as childhood innocence has not yet been darkened by disturbing events, while Part Two reveals the questioning that arises when children become aware of injustices and unfairness that results from adults who hurt and damage others’ lives, both intentionally and accidentally.
The book opens with the line, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” The rest of the book then leads up to how this happened. We are introduced to our narrator/ protagonist, Scout Finch, who lives with her father, a righteous and decent lawyer named Atticus, her ten-year-old brother, Jeremiah, known as Jem, and their black housemaid, Calpurnia. We meet Dill, a child of Scout’s age who hails from Mississippi but spends summers at his Aunt Rachel’s house, next door to the Finch family home. Dill becomes close to both Scout and Jem, and the three become an inseparable trio during the summer months. Scout is a tomboy, even feeling insulted when her brother occasionally accuses her of being like a girl.
The Radley house, just down the street, is the source of terrifying speculation by the children. They’ve never seen Arthur “Boo” Radley, in the many years he has purportedly lived there. Rumors of his penchant for eating cats and murdering unsuspecting children lead to endless speculation and rumor. The house becomes a central issue to the kids, as they dare each other to approach the house, or speculate upon ideas to draw the mystery man out into the open so that they can see what this assumed monster looks like.
Scout eventually begins first grade, where the teacher intends to teach her to read. The teacher is dismayed to discover that Scout is already a highly proficient reader, and worse yet, is able to write very well. The teacher forbids Scout from reading and writing, insisting that these are things to be learned at a later time. This is the beginning of Scout’s questioning of adults, and of the correctness of guidance offered by those in a position of authority.
Scout discovers treasures being left for her in the knothole of a tree near the Radley house. She shares the discoveries with her brother, and they speculate about who might be the mysterious benefactor.
The children’s curiosity about Boo Radley briefly outweighs their fear, and one night they attempt to peek inside of his windows. Their presence is detected, and the children run in fear. In their haste to escape, Jem’s pants get caught on the fence. When he sneaks back under the cover of darkness to retrieve them, he finds them mended, neatly folded, and waiting for him.
Atticus is assigned to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a local white woman. It soon becomes apparent that Atticus is despised by many of the townsfolk, due to their prejudicial dislike of black people. This affects the children as well, when confronted and taunted by other children, leading to schoolyard fights.
At the trial, Atticus presents a defense that clearly demonstrates the defendant’s innocence, while simultaneously exposing the white woman, Mayella Ewell, and her father, Bob, of lying. Nonetheless, the all-white jury’s verdict is unjustly returned as guilty, to the great dismay and bewilderment of the children.
In spite of the guilty verdict, Bob vows vengeance upon Atticus for the humiliation of proving him to be a liar, and of exposing the fact that Mayella had actually invited Tom to be intimate with her. Atticus dismisses the threat as empty words spoken in a moment of passion.
Before the appeal that Atticus has planned, Tom is shot in the back 17 times, allegedly while trying to escape a prison work detail.
As the children grapple with the realization that adults can be brutally unfair, and even wicked towards others, they find a disturbing darkness that they do not understand. They go on about their daily lives, though, while trying to digest these unpleasant realities.
One night, the children are returning from a late-night event at the schoolhouse, when they are attacked by Bob. Bob attempts to stab the children as revenge towards Atticus, but a mysterious man saves the children. The mystery man stops the attack, and carries the injured Jem back to the Finch home. It is soon revealed that this hero is Boo Radley.
The sheriff declares that Bob accidentally fell on his own knife and died, but it is clear that this conclusion is declared in an effort to protect Boo from facing a jury trial. While Boo’s actions were certainly righteous and justifiable, they would have been difficult for reclusive Boo to deal with, and since juries can be unpredictable, this decision ensures Boo’s safety.
The book closes with Scout seeing things from a new perspective. She reflects upon the many different things that have happened on her street alone, and how Boo may have viewed them.
The book’s opening chapters express a view of life through the eyes of a young girl. Innocence and childish ignorance are happy virtues, even though our protagonist and her older brother are intelligent, moral people. Scout has learned to read and write long before the education system scheduled such milestones, and she and her brother express many signs of kindness and compassion, not only for each other, but for humans in general. Even when Scout uses racial epithets, it is clear that the words are not spoken out of spite, but out of innocent imitation of the words used by those around her. When the children find treasures in a tree, they concern themselves with finding the rightful owner, and while they fear Boo Radley, they express concern for his well-being. And while Scout regularly finds herself delivering punches to others her age, it’s usually due to defending the honor of her own father.
The second part of the book opens the eyes of these children to the harsh realities of unfairness, prejudice, and outright hatred that somehow manifests itself in adults. They witness the curious hypocrisy of many around them who pompously decry the evils of prejudice and judgment, yet do those very things frequently, without a second thought.
Father Atticus remains a moral cornerstone. He is thus subjected to verbal assault, and even violence. His life is threatened for his belief in taking the moral and ethical high ground, and in the end of the book, his own children very nearly lose their lives as a result.
Answers are never found. Scout and Jem are thrust into the ugliness of human behavior, yet both have taken unspoken vows to resist becoming like that. Both hold onto their belief that humans are not to be judged, or especially condemned, based upon their ethnic background, their gender, their last name, or their family’s tenure. Jem, being older, appears to gain an understanding of the importance of preserving and treasuring all life, while Scout learns from his example. Atticus, Calpurnia, and a few neighbors also provide moral guidance, and sometimes consolation when Scout is baffled by human behaviors.
The mockingbird is a simple metaphor, in that Atticus tells the children that they are free to use their air rifles to shoot at many things, but never a mockingbird. It is explained that the mockingbird is an innocent thing, causing no harm, and bringing only joy. When Tom Robinson is wrongfully convicted, and subsequently killed, it becomes clear to the children that the mockingbird represents Tom… and that his death is a sin.
We also see that sometimes there is a price to pay for the killing of the metaphorical mockingbird. While it cannot be said that justice was served, spiteful Bob Ewell’s death serves to present the idea that sometimes the wicked will pay for their sins.
J. B. Lippincott & Co.