To Kill a Mockingbird: Characters, Setting & Author

Instructor: Jenifer Powell
Harper Lee's classic coming-of-age novel explores issues of racism, family, courage, leadership, and judgment through the eyes of Scout Finch, the protagonist and narrator of the story.

Overview

To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the voice of a young girl named Scout Finch, who is six years old at the beginning of the novel. Her father, Atticus Finch, is a well-respected lawyer who has been chosen to defend Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of rape by a poor, dishonest family in their town. Scout encounters various conflicts as a result of the trial, and as she navigates going to school, encountering a 'malevolent spirit' down the street, and dealing with children and adults who make derogatory comments about her father's defense of Tom Robinson, she begins to grow up and gain an understanding of the world and human motivation.

To Kill a Mockingbird Book Cover

The Author

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Lee has always lived a private life, but what we do know about her has led to speculation that the characters and events of To Kill a Mockingbird are loosely based on Lee's life. Lee's interest in literature was sparked by her high school English teacher, Gladys Watson Burkett, and after high school, Lee went to the University of Alabama. She then moved to New York to pursue a career as a writer. Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, and it quickly made it on the bestseller list where it remained for eighty-eight weeks. The novel then won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Lee's second book, Go Set a Watchman, was published in 2015, the year before she died.

Major Characters

  • Jean Louise (Scout) Finch: Scout is the protagonist and narrator of the novel. She is a tomboy who gets in trouble for fist-fighting at school, and she would rather wear overalls and play with the boys outside than with the girls her age. She is strong-willed and defiant at times, but she has a great deal of respect for her father, Atticus, and she tries her best to please him. As the novel progresses, Scout begins to mature and understand the consequences of her actions and behavior.
  • Jeremy (Jem) Finch: Jem is Scout's older brother. We learn at the opening of the novel that Jem likes to play football and be outside. As the novel progresses, we can see Jem develop into a compassionate, intelligent, and respectful young man. He does have his pride and insists that he isn't scared when he is dared to do something scary, like touch the Radley house down the street where the 'phantom' lives. He is also fiercely protective of his father and his own beliefs, growing angry when a neighbor makes comments about Atticus and when he learns the verdict of the Tom Robinson case.
  • Atticus Finch: Atticus is the father of Scout and Jem, and because his wife died when Scout was young, he is raising the children on his own. Atticus is patient and gives the children their independence to discover the ways of the world on their own, but he has high expectations of them and communicates his disappointment when the children don't make good decisions. Atticus is a lawyer and is the moral compass of this novel; he defends Tom Robinson when most people in Maycomb assume that Tom is guilty because of the color of his skin, and he guides his children through the conflicts that they face as a result of the trial, highlighting the quality of leadership.
  • Charles (Dill) Baker Harris: Dill is seven years old and staying with his Aunt Rachel, who lives next door to the Finches, when Scout and Jem discover him in the collard patch in Aunt Rachel's yard. Dill is small for his age, but he has a kind heart and a huge imagination. When he first learns about Boo Radley, the phantom who hasn't been seen in years, he becomes preoccupied with making Boo come out. To the children, Dill embodies the summer and the fun that they have together, and although Dill has a tendency to tell white lies, Scout and Jem accept him and look forward to when he comes to stay for the summer.
  • The Ewells: The Ewells act as the antagonist in the novel, creating conflict that influences the main characters. Bob Ewell is a poor man who is raising his seven children on his own. Unlike Atticus, Mr. Ewell is not respected by the citizens of Maycomb because he has a reputation for drinking and not earning his money honestly. Mayella Ewell is his eldest daughter, and when Bob comes home and finds Tom Robinson with his daughter in the house one day, he accuses Tom of raping Mayella. When Mayella takes the stand during the trial, she verifies her father's claims, even though Tom's testimony reveals a very different story from what the Ewells are claiming.
  • Tom Robinson: Tom is an African-American man who is married to Helen Robinson. He is known for being kind and generous, working honestly, and helping others when he can. He lives down the road from the Ewells, and according to his testimony, he frequently helps Mayella with small chores that she usually has to do by herself while her father is away. Tom claims that Mayella invited him into the Ewell's house and then advanced upon him, kissing him and trying to get him to return her affection. Knowing the consequences of a black man kissing a white woman, Tom flees from the scene when Bob shows up, scared for his life. While it appears to the unbiased reader that Tom is innocent, in the end, he loses the trial accusing him of rape.
  • Arthur (Boo) Radley: Arthur Radley is the 'malevolent phantom' who lives in the dilapidated Radley house down the street from the Finches. The children hear stories about Boo that circulate the town, claiming that Boo was shut up in the house by his father when Boo got in trouble with some other teenage boys, and that Boo stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors. Nobody in the town has seen Boo in years, which inspires fear and superstition from both the children and the citizens of Maycomb. The children later learn that Boo is kind when he leaves gifts for them in the knothole in a tree on the Radley property and then saves their lives towards the end of the novel when they are attacked by Bob Ewell, who is angry with Atticus for defending Tom Robinson.

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