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To Kill a Mockingbird: Summary, Analysis and Quotes

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  • 0:07 The Great American Novel
  • 0:49 Characters
  • 1:40 Plot Summary: Part One
  • 4:29 Plot Summary: Part Two
  • 7:33 Themes
  • 9:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

How did a novel that deals with difficult topics like racism and rape become an American classic and a staple of high school English classes? In this lesson, we'll learn all about Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

The Great American Novel

Did you ever wish you could write a great American novel? You know, just publish your first novel, have it be a massive critical and commercial success and then see its legacy grow for decades? That's exactly what Alabama-native Harper Lee did. Her debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960. It was an immediate hit. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Its popularity is eclipsed by the Bible but not much else.

So what's all the fuss about? Much of it comes down to the terrific story, which is set in the town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But it's also about the iconic characters. Let's start there.

Characters

The main character and narrator in To Kill a Mockingbird is Jean Louise Finch, though she goes by the name Scout. She's an overall-wearing, tree-climbing tomboy who is six years old at the start. Then there's Jem Finch, Scout's older brother by four years. There's also Atticus Finch, their father. He's a widower. He's also a lawyer, which means the Finches are fairly well off for their community. He's kind of a paragon of virtue.

His opposite is Bob Ewell. He's a poor, drunken, hate-filled man. His daughter is Mayella Ewell. And their story intersects with Tom Robinson, a black field hand. Then there's Arthur 'Boo' Radley. He's a recluse living in a creepy house near the Finches and though his presence is felt, he's rarely seen. Okay, let's get to the story.

Plot Summary: Part One

The story begins in summer as Scout, Jem and their friend, Dill, have a series of adventures acting out stories they know. Dill is fascinated by the Radley house. He wants to lure Boo Radley out of the house. He convinces Jem to run up and touch the house, but that's as far as they get.

Fall arrives, and Scout goes to school for the first time. Scout's very smart. In fact, her father already taught her to read. Yet, she hates school and clashes with her teacher, Miss Caroline, who says:

'Tell your father not to teach you anymore. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage-'

'Ma'am?'

'Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now.'

Miss Caroline has difficulties with some of the very poor children. For example, there's one of the Ewell kids, who only attends the first day of school each year, as mandated by law. Miss Caroline sees a bug crawl out of the Ewell boy's hair and screams hysterically before ordering the boy to go home. One day, Scout is passing the Radley house and notices some pieces of gum that were placed in a knothole of a tree. Later, she and Jem find some pennies hidden in the same spot.

When summer comes again, Dill returns and the kids start acting out imagined stories about the Radley family. Atticus finds out and isn't happy. Jem and Dill begin hanging out, which leads Scout to spend time with Miss Maudie Atkinson, a local widow. Miss Maudie dispels some of the rumors about Boo, noting that he was a perfectly normal child, but he had a terrible, abusive father. This caused him to become a recluse.

The kids are still fascinated with the mysterious Boo, and one day, they sneak up to the house and look in a window. They get scared and run off, dashing under a fence. But Jem's pants get stuck so he leaves them behind. When he goes back to retrieve them, he finds them mended and folded on the fence.

During the next school year, there are more presents in the knothole, including two carved soap figurines that look like Scout and Jem. Then, the pair discovers that Boo's brother, Nathan, has plugged the hole with cement.

That winter, Miss Maudie's house catches fire and burns down. While everyone is gathered outside, someone puts a blanket on Scout. Only later does Scout realize that that someone is Boo Radley. By this point, they also understand that it was Boo Radley giving them the gifts in the tree.

Then we get to Tom Robinson's story. He's charged with beating and raping Mayella Ewell. The deep-seated racism of the Alabama community emerges as Atticus agrees to defend Tom. Children taunt Scout and Jem. One child says, 'Scout Finch's daddy defends...' well, he uses a word I'd rather not say. The white community's hatred for its black citizens follows the Finch family wherever they go.

Plot Summary: Part Two

The second half of the novel begins the next summer. Scout and Jem go with the family's black cook, Calpurnia, to her church. They're warmly welcomed, in part, because Atticus is defending Tom. Later comes a critical scene. Tom Robinson gets moved to the Maycomb jail, and there's concern about a lynch mob. Atticus goes to stand guard. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak out to watch. The mob arrives and demand that Atticus step aside. The kids pop out and Scout recognizes one of the men.

'Hey, Mr. Cunningham,' she says. He acts like he doesn't hear her. 'Don't you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I'm Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember? I go to school with Walter. He's your boy, ain't he? Ain't he, sir? He's in my grade, and he does right well. He's a good boy, a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won't you?'

Her innocence and persistence embarrasses Cunningham, and he disperses the mob. Scout and Jem attend the trial without Atticus' permission, watching from the balcony that's set aside for the black community. Atticus offers clear evidence that Tom didn't rape Mayella. In fact, Mayella lured the naïve Tom into her house, and then came onto him. They were caught by Bob Ewell, her father, who beat her and made up the rape story. Atticus notes that Mayella has wounds on the right side of her face, which would most likely be inflicted by a left hand. But Tom's left hand is useless after being injured in a cotton gin. Yet Bob Ewell is left-handed.

But it's an all-white jury in a racist Alabama town, so they convict Tom. Soon after, Tom tries to escape prison, but he's shot to death. Jem is particularly distraught at the injustice of what occurred. Bob Ewell, despite getting what he wanted, vows revenge on those he thinks wronged him. He begins terrorizing the judge, Tom's widow and the Finches.

Bob ends up attacking Scout and Jem on Halloween. Jem breaks his arm and is knocked unconscious. Exactly what happens next is unclear to Scout in the moment. But it turns out that Boo Radley intervened, fatally stabbing Bob. He also carries Jem home and waits with Scout as Atticus and the sheriff debate what to do. Atticus believes justice needs to be served, but the sheriff wants to let Boo remain unbothered, saying:

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