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To Kill a Mockingbird Chapter 1 Summary

Instructor: Ann Morris

Ann has taught secondary language arts and has a master's degree in journalism.

In this lesson, learn how Harper Lee opens ''To Kill a Mockingbird,'' one of the most famous novels in American history. Set in the South during the Depression, the story is narrated by Scout as she looks back on a pivotal period in her childhood.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Chapter One Summary and Analysis

If someone were to ask you to tell stories from your childhood, which events would you describe? A funny thing that happened on vacation? The death of a beloved dog? Your favorite summer camp? In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, author Harper Lee chooses to have her narrator, Jean Louise Finch, relate stories about growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930's, with Atticus, her father; Jem, her older brother; Dill, their neighbor; and Calpurnia, their cook. Jean Louise uses pronouns such as I and we to tell the story using the first-person point of view.

Jean Louise, who goes by the nickname Scout, opens the story by introducing us to her brother, Jem. Named Jeremy Atticus Finch, Jem broke his elbow when he was twelve and was concerned only about whether he would be able to play football after it healed. The broken elbow itself is not significant, but the events leading up to the injury are. Lee promises that to us when Scout says she thinks the Ewells started the trouble that led to Jem's injury, but that Jem thinks the trouble started the day their friend Dill arrived in town. As readers, we have to be willing to let Lee drag us into the past and then forward a few years, then back a few years, and so on. In fact, the author tells most of the story in the form of flashbacks, events that happened in the past and are remembered in the present time of the narrative.

The Finch Family

Scout only briefly mentions her father, Atticus, even though he will play a key role throughout much of the rest of the book. Scout and Jem are the youngest of the Finch clan, which started growing roots in America when their ancestor, Simon Finch, left England to flee religious persecution and sailed across the Atlantic. Simon made his way to Alabama, where he bought three slaves and established Finch's Landing, the family homestead.

Scout's father, Atticus, and his brother, Jack, broke with tradition when they chose not to settle on the homestead and grow cotton. Atticus attended law school in Montgomery, while Jack earned a medical degree in Boston. Atticus settled in his hometown of Maycomb, where his wife gave birth to Jem and, four years later, Scout. Scout was only two years old when her mother had a heart attack and died, so she never knew her well. Calpurnia, the family's black cook, took on the role of surrogate, or substitute, mother to Scout and Jem, keeping an eye on them and lovingly meting out discipline when necessary.

Who is Boo?

Scout describes Maycomb as a slow town where there was 'nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.' The summer of Scout's sixth year becomes more interesting when she and Jem meet Dill, a seven-year-old boy who shows up in their neighbor Rachel Haverford's yard one day. Dill confidently introduces himself to the pair as Charles Baker Harris and advises them that he will be staying at his aunt Rachel's house every summer beginning with this one. Scout, Jem, and Dill quickly become a trio and entertain themselves by acting out scenes from some of their favorite dramas. Once the acting becomes tiresome, the trio look for other sources of recreation, and that is when Dill begins to fixate on Boo.

Boo is the children's neighbor, Arthur Radley, and his family's secretive ways make for a perfect mystery for the children to solve. Scout introduces Arthur to us as a 'malevolent phantom,' suggesting that she believes evil lurks behind his dilapidated home's closed doors. Every crime committed in Maycomb is attributed to the reclusive man, and Arthur's family's habit of keeping to themselves is not well received among the townsfolk.

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