'To Kill a Mockingbird' Characters

Descriptions and Significance

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a tremendous literary achievement, combining a subtlety of voice with a setting and characters rendered with consummate skill. From a young girl imbued with her older self’s perspectives to the inner life of a servant, Lee makes choices with her characters that add impact to the plot’s events and realism to the setting. That realism—the ability for the reader to imagine actually meeting the characters in the book—imbues Lee’s themes of racism, equality, and the trap of poverty with great power.

Scout Finch

Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is the narrator and main character of the novel. The fact that Jean Louise is actually telling the story as an adult decades later is sometimes forgotten, because Lee so perfectly ties the perspective to the younger Scout, who is 6 years old when the story begins. As a result of this technique, Scout is often remembered as a precociously intelligent child who understands the subtleties of events around her more than most children her age. The fact is, it is the elder Scout injecting those insights into the story with the aid of hindsight and mature experience.

Scout is a "tomboy" who rejects traditional feminine roles and trappings. She is adventurous and idealistic, taking her moral cues from her father, Atticus. Even when she does not fully understand scenarios she instinctively defends Atticus, usually by getting into physical altercations. In fact, physical action is Scout’s preferred way of overcoming any obstacle, which is a curious opposition to Atticus’ more cerebral and peaceful approach.

Scout’s physical approach to problems reflects her initially simplistic moral outlook: she initially believes that there is always a clear right and wrong in every situation, and triumph in physical combat always results in a winner and a loser. As the story goes on and Scout grows older, she begins to understand more about the world around her, which by necessity makes her less certain about the morality of any particular action. As a result, Scout begins to value reading and education more as she grows older, and begins to see the way physical force can be abused and lead to less certain moral outcomes.

Atticus Finch

Scout’s widower father is an attorney. Although he is a well-respected member of the community and can seem like a very traditional man of his time, Atticus in fact has many subtle attributes that mark him as a bit of an iconoclast. He shows little intention of remarrying and seems comfortable being a single father. He values education and is intent that his daughter receive a first-class education, and is not concerned with her lack of what many at the time would consider "feminine" qualities. He indulges his children, allowing them to call him by name instead of insisting on a honorific like "father," and lets them more or less roam unsupervised, trusting their judgment despite their young age.

Thus it should not be a surprise when Atticus takes his role as lawyer to Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in the American South in the 1930s, very seriously. It is strongly implied that the town expects Atticus to do very little to defend Tom, and his insistence on taking his role seriously and doing his best for his client enrages much of the community. Atticus is presented as an intelligent, moral man who believes strongly in the rule of law and the necessity of blind justice. He has very progressive views on race and is very perceptive about class distinctions, and teaches his children to always be fair and empathetic to others, but to fight for what they believe in.

Jem Finch

Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch is Scout’s older brother. Ten years old at the beginning of the story, Jem is in many ways a typical older sibling. He is protective of his status and often uses his superior age to force Scout to do things his way. Jem is depicted by the elder Jean-Louise as sensitive, intelligent, and fundamentally fair. Jem also demonstrates a rich imagination and an energetic approach to life; for example, it is Jem who drives the investigation into the mystery surrounding Boo Radley, the play-acting the children engage in, and the steadily escalating risks involved with making contact.

Jem is in many ways presented as the end result of Atticus’ parental example. Not only is Jem older, and thus able to demonstrate how his father has influenced his worldview and behavior, but he shares many of the implied characteristics of Atticus, including a deep reverence for fairness and a decency and respect offered to all other people regardless of race or class. Jem displays difficulty dealing with other people who do not rise to his standard, showing just how hard Atticus has to work every day to keep his aura of calm and maturity. In other words, Jem shows how difficult doing the right thing can be—something that his father makes look easy.

Boo Radley

If there is one character who encapsulates the broader themes of To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s Boo Radley. A troubled recluse who lives next door to the Finches (but never leaves the house), Boo Radley is the subject of many rumors. Boo naturally fascinates the Finch children, and his affectionate, childlike gestures towards them—the gifts left in the tree knot, Jem’s mended pants—point towards the ultimate lesson that Scout learns from him: That appearances and rumor don’t mean much. Just as Tom Robinson is assumed to be a criminal and a degenerate simply because of his race, Boo Radley is assumed to be terrifying and animalistic simply because he is different. Scout’s recognition of the fundamental humanity of Boo Radley is a crucial part of the story.

Dill Harris

Charles Baker "Dill" Harris is a young boy who visits his Aunt Rachel in Maycomb every summer. He becomes best friends with Scout and Jem, who find his sense of adventure and fanciful imagination to be a delightful source of entertainment. Dill is the main driver behind the quest to make Boo Radley come out of his house, and at one point agrees to marry Scout when they are older, something she takes very seriously.

Dill serves as an outside point-of-view for Jem and Scout, who have grown up in Maycomb and thus cannot always see their home objectively. Scout expresses a callous attitude towards racism early in the book, for example, but Dill’s reaction is visceral revulsion, which inspires the Finch children to reevaluate their view of the world.

Calpurnia

Cal is the Finches’ housekeeper and a surrogate mother to Jem and Scout. Whereas early in the novel Scout views Calpurnia as a disciplinarian and killer of fun, by the end of the novel she views Cal as a figure of respect and admiration. Calpurnia is educated and intelligent, and has helped to raise the Finch children to be the same. She also provides the children with a window into the world of black citizens in Maycomb, which is vital to their understanding of the stakes involved in Tom Robinson’s plight.

Tom Robinson

Tom Robinson is a black man who supports his family by working as a field hand despite having a crippled left arm. He is charged with the rape of a white woman, and Atticus is assigned to defend him. Despite being the accused, Tom has very little to do with the central conflict of the story—just like other members of the black community in America at the time, he is largely powerless, and the conflict is fought between white people. Tom’s essential decency is perceived by Scout when he finally takes part in his own defense, and his eventual death disillusions and depresses Scout.