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To Kill a Mockingbird Chapter Summaries
Read our detailed summary of the novel and then have a look at the hand-picked essays!
The story begins at the end. We do not know how Jem breaks his arm until the very close of the story, though it is mentioned casually here. The narrator, as yet unidentified, in discussing with Jem how this happened, finds a starting point in the past: Dill’s arrival and “the idea of making Boo Radley come out.” There is a reference to the history of the south (the southern states of the USA), the Finches’ origins in England, and their arrival in Alabama. Atticus Finch is related to nearly everyone in Maycomb.
The summer heat is described, plus an echo of President Roosevelt’s recent inauguration speech, delivered in March 1933. He famously said: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Much of the book is about “fear.”
The family is looked after by Calpurnia, a very strict cook/nurse. The mother died before our narrator could remember her.
The arrival of Dill, when the children are 6 and nearly 10, marks the real start of the story. We now learn that the narrator is a girl, Jem’s younger sister known as Scout. Dill is staying with his aunt and provides new ideas for games for the children. When he hears about the reclusive Radley family, whose mysterious house is nearby, containing (it is thought) Arthur “Boo” Radley, who has barely been seen for 15 years, Dill finds the challenge irresistible. Jem is rather frightened but doesn’t want to show it.
We learn about the sad history of the Radley family, and though all Jem does is slap their wall, there is “a tiny, almost invisible movement.” First contact!
Dill goes home and Scout goes to school for the first time. The new teacher finds Scout’s mature reading skills irritating. Some of the children are so poor they have no shoes or food. This is the first mention of the Cunningham family.
Scout fights Walter Cunningham, but Jem breaks it up and Walter is invited to lunch at the Finches. Scout draws attention to his lack of table manners and is told off by Calpurnia. Atticus reminds Scout how much they depend on their cook. Back at school Miss Fisher, the teacher, is horrified to see a head louse on the scalp of Burris Ewell – the first mention of this family. Burris’ verbal abuse of Miss Fisher foreshadows the behaviour of the Ewells later in the story. Scout has not enjoyed her first day. Atticus explains that she must compromise: “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” From such empathy will come tolerance, he argues.
Scout finds chewing gum in a tree near the Radley house. It’s the second summer of the story. They find more “gifts” in the tree. Jem begins to guess these are connected with Boo. With Dill’s arrival they play more games. Scout is pushed inside a tyre and finds herself at the foot of the Radley house. She does not tell them that she hears laughter inside the house, and that she’s sure Boo is there. They play the “Radley game”, enacting episodes from Boo’s life. Atticus is not pleased by this.
Scout talks to Miss Maudie Atkinson, a neighbour and old friend of Atticus. She shares similar beliefs, rejecting the strict Bible interpretations of some of Maycomb’s residents. She describes the Radleys as living in “a sad house”, implying that if Boo is “crazy,” his family has made him that way.
The children try to put a message through Boo’s window. Atticus warns them to “stop tormenting that man.”
The children come closer to Boo than ever. In darkness they see him as a shadow: “Its arm came out from its side, dropped, and was still.” This gesture of Boo will not be completed until the very last chapter of the book.
A shotgun blast interrupts their adventure. The elder Mr Radley fired at a “negro”-highlighting the casual racism of many of Maycomb’s white inhabitants. Even the children use the word “nigger”. Jem has lost his trousers on Boo’s fence. He horrifies Scout by going back in the dark to fetch them.
Jem tells Scout that when he located his trousers, “They’d been sewed up. Not like a lady sewed ‘em...Like somebody was readin’ my mind.” They find more gifts from Boo, this time two small soap statues of the children. Jem has realised the truth but Scout, four years younger, doesn’t...yet. They find that the older Mr Radley has filled up the hole in the tree with cement – cutting off Boo’s channel of communication with the children –reminding us what Miss Maudie said of the family.
It snows in Maycomb, for the first time since 1885! Scout thinks “the world’s ending.” They make a snowman. In the night temperatures drop further. People keep their wood fires burning and Miss Maudie’s house catches alight. The children stand by the Radley place, watching. Scout discovers she has been draped with a blanket for warmth, and it was Boo who put it round her! In the excitement Jem blurts out to Atticus what he’s discovered about Boo: “...ain’t ever hurt us.” Miss Maudie’s values are shown by her indifference to the fate of her house.
Tom Robinson is mentioned for the first time. Scout is persecuted at school because her father is defending “niggers”. Atticus, knowing the children are in for a hard time, explains to Scout that if he didn’t defend Tom, “I couldn’t hold up my head in town.” Scout restrains herself at school but finds it impossible not to retaliate on her cousin Francis, when they visit Atticus’s sister [Aunt Alexandra] for Christmas. Scout shows her maturity by insisting that her uncle Jack keep quiet about the causes of the fight. She does not want to put more pressure on her father. She overhears Atticus discussing the Tom Robinson case. He knows he can’t win. It’s “a black man’s word against the Ewells’...I intend to jar the jury a bit.” Many years later Scout realises that Atticus meant her to hear this.
Because he won’t play “touch football” the children think their father is dull. They learn why he won’t play when a rabid dog appears in the street. Everybody locks themselves away until the sheriff appears. He is a professional, but he asks Atticus to take the shot. The children are astonished to learn that their father is a crack-shot: “One-Shot Finch.” They can’t understand why their father has never drawn attention to this skill, which they could boast about at school. Miss Maudie explains that shooting was too easy for him and “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.” Jem appreciates this.
The children are terrified of an old woman – Mrs Dubose. She is rumoured to keep a C.S.A. pistol under her shawl. C.S.A. stands for Confederate States of America- the slave-owning side in the American Civil War. She harasses the children about their father “lawing for niggers!” Atticus tells them they should respect her because she is old and ill, and Scout admires this bravery in her father. On the day of his 12th birthday Jem’s patience snaps, particularly as Mrs Dubose refers to their mother, whose memory Jem cherishes. He smashes all the flowers in her garden. Atticus orders him to go and apologise. He explains again to Scout why he must take the Tom Robinson case, however unpopular it makes him.
Jem returns from Mrs Dubose and his punishment is to read to her every day after school. Scout, out of loyalty, goes with him. Mrs Dubose is physically repellent and they don’t understand why they seem to read to her for longer and longer each day, until her clock alarm goes off. The punishment ends and some weeks later Mrs Dubose dies. Atticus explains to them that they had helped cure her morphine addiction: “Her whole mind and body were concentrated on that alarm clock.” He had wanted them to see “what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.”
Jem is 12 now; Calpurnia calls him Mister Jem. Another summer, but no Dill – his mother has re-married. Atticus, who is an elected Maycomb official, has to be away at the state capital for two weeks, leaving the children with Calpurnia. She takes them to her church, normally only attended by black people, which was bought “from the first earnings of freed slaves.” The children are amazed at the service. Only Zeebo (Calpurnia’s son) can read, and “voices followed him in simple harmony.” The congregation, despite their poverty, collect all they can for Tom Robinson’s wife, and the Reverend tells the children that “this church has no better friend than your daddy.” For the first time they hear that Tom is accused of raping a white girl.
This is the first glimpse we’ve had of Maycomb’s black community, through the eyes of children who don’t share “Maycomb’s usual disease” of racial prejudice.
Returning home, they are dismayed to discover Aunt Alexandra in their house – and not for a short stay. Her view of the family’s history conflicts with the stories Atticus has told them about some of their ancestors. They fear her influence over their father, but the chapter ends with Scout reassured.
The children hear mutterings in town about their father’s defence of Tom Robinson. Their aunt forbids them to go to Calpurnia’s church again and this leads to an argument with Atticus. They find Dill under Scout’s bed: he has run away from home: “...they just wasn’t interested in me,” he says of his parents. This shows his similarity to Boo Radley.
Scout’s observation, “a nightmare was upon us,” marks the central phase of the novel, revolving around the trial of Tom Robinson. The children are nervous and when Atticus is late home they go to look for him. Atticus is sitting outside the town jail, guarding its only prisoner – Tom Robinson. The people of Maycomb have come, to lynch Tom [i.e. execute him illegally]. When he sees the children Atticus is very frightened. Scout, innocently recognises one of the mob (a Cunningham) as a parent of a school friend, which saves the day by reminding the men that they, like Tom, are parents too.
Atticus sees this as a triumph of empathy (see Ch. 3). He says, “a mob’s made up of people, no matter what. Mr Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man.” It took an 8 year old to bring them to their senses which “...proves something –that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.” This philosophy will be tested as the book goes on.
People from out of town begin to arrive for the trial. Miss Maudie remarks, “it’s like a Roman carnival.” A matter of life and death is entertainment for many. The children discuss the racial attitudes common in the southern states, and they hear their father being talked about. Many are appalled that Atticus actually “aims to defend this nigger.” The courtroom is segregated and the children find themselves sat in the “Coloured balcony.”
The trial begins. It’s immediately obvious that Tom has no case to answer because there was never a medical examination of the alleged victim, Mayella Ewell, to determine if she’d been raped. The sheriff, Heck Tate, knows that a mistake was made. Atticus also proves that she was more likely to have been beaten by a left-handed person. When Mr Ewell (named Robert E. Lee Ewell after a Confederate general) takes the stand, he expects his story to be believed and does not anticipate a cross-examination. Atticus shows the jury that Mr Ewell is left-handed.
The next witness is Mayella, the supposed victim. After she has recounted her story, Atticus paints a picture of her to the jury as a hapless, exploited member of the Ewell clan, often beaten by her drunken father. When we see that Tom Robinson has a crippled left arm, Mayella’s whole testimony is questioned, and she refuses to answer any longer, bursting into tears.
Tom himself takes the stand. His story is very different to the previous two witnesses. Scout sees a connection between Mayella and Boo, a young woman so lonely that she tried to tempt a black man, who had been kind to her. Tom’s testimony also reveals that Mayella was probably sexually abused by her own father. Dill is so sickened by the prosecutor’s questioning of Tom that Scout has to take him out of the courtroom.
Outside the court we meet Dolphus Raymond, a man who pretends to be a drunkard to make it easier for people to accept that he lives with a black woman! Back at the trial Atticus is summing up. He unbuttons his jacket and waistcoat to speak to them man-to-man- the jury are all men, and all white. He asserts that Mayella made up the rape accusation to cover her own “unspeakable” sin, of being attracted to a black man. He pleads with them to show that “in our courts all men are created equal,” echoing the words of the American Constitution.
Chapter Twenty One
Calpurnia interrupts the trial looking for the children who aren’t supposed to be there. We are aware that the whole trial will be over in just a day. Jem is convinced that Tom will be found not guilty, but Rev. Sykes says: “I ain’t ever seen any jury decide in favour of a coloured man over a white man.” Sure enough when the jury returns they find Tom guilty. As Atticus leaves the court, those in the black balcony rise, as a mark of respect for all he’s done.
Chapter Twenty Two
Next morning Atticus discovers huge amounts of food left for him by the black community. He is moved to tears, knowing how little they have. Miss Maudie tells the children there are also white people who are on Tom’s side. She calls it “a baby-step,” in the right direction, reminding us that when Harper Lee wrote the novel, the Civil Rights movement in America was just becoming prominent. When Bob Ewell spits in Atticus’s face we realise the story is far from over.
Chapter Twenty Three
Rape is a capital offence in Alabama. Unless there’s a successful appeal, Tom will be executed in the electric chair. Atticus prophesies that “it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to have to pay the bill.” he takes some comfort from the fact that one of the jurors was doubtful of Tom’s guilt, even though he had been in the lynch mob the day before. Jem reminds us of Boo Radley, who’s been absent from the story for some time. He suggests that Boo prefers to be shut away from such a cruel world.
Chapter Twenty Four
Aunt Alexandra’s missionary circle assemble at Scout’s house. She struggles with their conception of what it means to be feminine. The good ladies of Maycomb cannot see the hypocrisy of their attitude to the black people suffering under their noses, while they give money for missions in Africa. Reality intrudes when Atticus tells them that Tom Robinson has been shot dead. He says: “I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.”
Chapter Twenty Five
Tom’s wife, Helen, faints when she hears the news. The local paper’s write that it was “a sin to kill cripples...” They likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds – reminding us of the novel’s title, and “Mr Ewell said it made one down and two more to go.”
Chapter Twenty Six
Another autumn, another school year. The children recall their fascination with Boo. We are reminded of racism elsewhere, when a school talk mentions Hitler, who’s been in power in Germany for two years. Scout points out the hypocrisy of Miss Gates, the teacher who proclaims the virtues of democracy, while saying “they [black people] were gettin’ way above themselves.”
Chapter Twenty Seven
There are signs that Bob Ewell, despite Tom’s death, is not satisfied. He follows Helen Robinson, “crooning foul words.” Atticus underestimates the threat - a near fatal error. It’s Halloween – when ghosts traditionally appear. Scout goes to the school fete, dressed as a ham! Only Jem accompanies her.
Chapter Twenty Eight
Because of her costume Scout can barely see. She falls asleep, misses her cue and is too embarrassed to leave with everyone else. Jem leads her back in the dark. He soon realises they’re being followed. Someone attacks them with a knife and Jem’s arm is broken (see Ch. 1). Scout realises that someone else has saved them and carried the unconscious Jem to the house. The sheriff tells them Bob Ewell is dead –stabbed “with a kitchen knife.” Scout does not recognise the “countryman...standing in a corner.”
Chapter Twenty Nine
Atticus assumes Jem has stabbed Bob Ewell. Scout’s costume saved her. The sheriff, Heck Tate, takes a dimmer, more realistic view of human nature than Atticus. When Scout tells her story, she realises that the stranger who saved them is the person she has been wanting to see all this time but has failed to recognise –Boo Radley.
The sheriff, knowing Boo’s mental state, is determined, despite Atticus’s objection, to pretend Ewell’s death was an accident, thus evening up the score. “There’s a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it is dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time.” Scout understands. She says “it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mocking-bird, wouldn’t it?”
Chapter Thirty One
Scout takes Boo to see the sleeping Jem, and, touching his hair, Boo completes the gesture he began in Chapter 6. She takes Boo home and, realising he will always be a damaged person, knows that she will never see him again. Scout’s mind runs images from the story: the children’s games, the shooting of the dog, the trial. She sees these events from Boo’s house, standing in his shoes, as Atticus recommended. She sees herself, Jem and Dill as Boo’s children. The book ends, as Atticus reads to the sleepy Scout, with an image of security.