'To Kill a Mockingbird' Summary

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel deals with race and justice

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. It tells a story of racism, moral courage, and the power of innocence that has influenced several generations’ ideas about justice, race relations, and poverty.

Scout and Friends

To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Jean Louise Finch, a 6-year-old girl usually referred to by her nickname, Scout. Scout lives in Maycomb, Alabama with her brother Jem and her father Atticus, who is a widower and a prominent attorney in town. The novel opens in 1933 when the town—and the entire country—is suffering the effects of the Great Depression.

A young boy named Dill Harris arrives with his family for the summer and immediately forms a bond with Scout and Jem. Dill and Scout agree to get married, but then Dill spends more time with Jem than her, and Scout begins to regularly beat up Dill as a way of forcing him to honor their betrothal.

The three children spend their days and nights pretending and playing games. Dill becomes interested in the Radley Place, a house on the Finch’s street where the mysterious Arthur "Boo" Radley lives. Boo does not leave the house and is the subject of much rumor and fascination.

The Tree at the Radley House

When the summer ends, Scout must attend school and does not enjoy the experience. She and Jem walk past the Radley house every day to and from school, and one day Scout discovers that someone has left presents for them in a hollow of a tree outside the Radley house. This continues throughout the school year. When summer comes around again, Dill returns, and the three children pick up where they left off, play-acting the story of Boo Radley. When Atticus realizes what they’re doing, he tells them to stop and to think of Arthur not as a figure of fun, but as a human being. The children are chastened, but on the last night before Dill goes home again, the children sneak into the Radley house. Nathan Radley, Arthur’s brother, is enraged and shoots at the intruders. The children scramble to escape and Jem loses his pants when they become caught and torn. The next day Jem goes to retrieve the pants, and finds they have been sewn and cleaned.

Jem and Scout return to school and find more presents in the tree. When Nathan realizes that Boo is leaving them gifts, he pours cement into the hollow. One evening their neighbor Miss Maudie’s house catches fire and the community organizes to put it out. As Scout stands shivering to watch the flames, she realizes someone has slipped behind her and put a blanket over her shoulders. She is convinced it was Boo.

Atticus's Case

A terrible crime rocks the small town: a Black man with a crippled arm named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Atticus Finch reluctantly agrees to defend Robinson, knowing that otherwise he will not get anything close to a fair trial. Atticus experiences anger and pushback from the white community for this decision, but refuses to do less than his best. Jem and Scout are also bullied because of Atticus’ decision.

At Christmas the Finches travel to Finch’s Landing to celebrate with relatives. Calpurnia, the family cook, takes Jem and Scout to a local Black church, where they discover that their father is revered for his decision to defend Tom, and the children have a wonderful time.

The next summer, Dill is not supposed to come back but rather to spend his summer with his father. Dill runs away and Jem and Scout attempt to hide him, but he is soon compelled to go home. Atticus’ sister, Alexandra, comes to stay with them to look after Scout and Jem—especially Scout, who she insists needs to learn how to act like a young lady and not a tomboy.

A mob of angry people come to the local jail intending to lynch Tom Robinson. Atticus meets the mob and refuses to let them pass, daring them to attack him. Scout and Jem sneak out of the house to spy on their father and are there to see the mob. Scout recognizes one of the men, and she asks after his son, who she knows form school. Her innocent questions embarrass him, and he helps to break up the mob in shame.

The Trial and Its Aftermath

The trial begins. Jem and Scout sit with the Black community in the balcony. Atticus puts up a brilliant defense. The accusers, Mayella Ewell and her father Robert are low-class people and not very bright, and Atticus demonstrates that Bob Ewell had been beating Mayella for years. Mayella propositioned Tom and attempted to seduce him. When her father walked in, she made up the story of rape to save herself from punishment. The wounds that Mayella suffered that she said Tom inflicted would not be possible because of Tom’s crippled arm—in fact, the wounds were inflicted by her father. Bob Ewell is surly and angry that Atticus has made him a fool, but despite these efforts, the jury votes to convict Tom. Tom, despairing of justice, tries to escape from jail and is killed in the attempt, shaking Scout’s faith in humanity and justice.

Bob Ewell feels humiliated by Atticus, and begins a campaign of terror against everyone involved, including the judge in the case, Tom’s widow, and Scout and Jem. On Halloween, Jem and Scout go out in costume and are attacked by Bob Ewell. Scout cannot see well due to her costume and is terrified and confused. Jem is badly injured, but Boo Radley suddenly rushes to their assistance, killing Bob Ewell with his own knife. Boo then carries Jem to the house. The sheriff, recognizing what has happened, decides that Bob Ewell tripped and fell on his own knife, declining to investigate Boo Radley for the killing. Boo and Scout sit quietly for a while, and she sees that he is a gentle, kind presence. Then he returns to his house.

Jem’s injury means he will never be the athlete he hoped to be, but will heal. Scout reflects that she now can see Boo Radley as Arthur, a human being, and she embraces her father’s moral view of the world despite its imperfections.

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Somers, Jeffrey. "'To Kill a Mockingbird' Summary." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2021, thoughtco.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird-summary-4690559. Somers, Jeffrey. (2021, February 5). 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird-summary-4690559 Somers, Jeffrey. "'To Kill a Mockingbird' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird-summary-4690559 (accessed February 8, 2023).