To Kill A Mockingbird
by Harper Lee (1926 –
Type of Work:
Southern Alabama; early 1930s
Atticus Fitch, an attorney and single
Scout (Jean Louise Finch), his daughter,
a young six-year old tomboy (and the story’s narrator)
Jem (Jeremy Finch), Scout’s older brother
Arthur “Boo” Radley, a mysterious, reclusive
Tom Robinson, Atticus’ Negro client
When Jem was nearly 13 years old his arm
was badly broken at the elbow. After it healed and Jem was assured that
he could still play football, his arm never bothered him – though it always
remained shorter than the right, and hung at a funny angle. Years later,
Jem and his sister, Scout, still talked about the accident and the events
leading up to it. They finally agreed it had all started the summer when
they tried to get Arthur “Boo” Radley to come out of his house.
Jem and Scout lived in Maycomb, Alabama,
a drowsy, isolated town where everyone knew everyone. Their mother had
died when Scout was two years old. Calpurnia, a Negro cook, took care of
them and taught them tolerance that took them beyond the rigid prejudices
of Maycomb society’ Their wise father, an attorney, Atticus Finch, played
with them and read them stories. In fact, Scout learned to read before
going to school which later caused trouble with her teacher, who didn’t
think early reading fit into proper educational theory.
During the summer when Scout was six and
Jem was ten, the children became fascinated with the Radley place next
door. Most of the community’s young people believed the house was haunted.
At night children would cross the street rather than walk in front of the
Radley house. Nuts that fell from the Radley pecan tree into the school
yard were never eaten; surely, Radley nuts would kill you. A baseball hit
into the Radley yard was a lost ball. Scout and Jem raced past the property
on their way to or from school. The only person seen going in and out of
the dwelling was old Nathan Radley, “the meanest man ever God blew breath
into,” according to Calpurnia.
But inside the weathered home also lived
“Boo,” Nathan’s younger brother. No one had seen Boo for the past twenty
years. It was said that he had gotten into some “trouble” all those years
ago and had been imprisoned in the house ever since first by his now dead
father and then by Nathan.
All that summer Scout and Jem bravely assailed
the Radley home, trying to get a glimpse of Boo. They never saw him; but
they did see evidence of his existence. On one occasion, Jem’s torn pants
(lost on a wire fence while escaping from the Radley yard) were returned
to him – mended. Another night, when a fire forced the Finches out of their
house, Scout, shivering in the cold, found a blanket suddenly thrust around
her shoulders. “We’d better keep … the blanket to ourselves,” Atticus
gently said. “Someday, maybe, Scout can thank him for covering her up.”
“Thank who?” Scout asked. “Boo Radley,” replied her father. “You were so
busy looking at the fire you didn’t know it when he put the blanket around
Atticus finally ordered his two children
to stop harassing Arthur: “What Mr. Radley did was his own business. If
he wanted to come out, he would. If he wanted to stay inside his own house
he had the right to stay inside free from the attention of inquisitive
Through the next fall and winter, objects
began to mysteriously appear in the knot-hole of a tree on the corner of
the Radley property: gum, then twine, a carved soap sculpture, Indian-head
pennies, and other treasures – gifts clearly intended for Scout and Jem.
Boo became even more of a puzzle.
The following summer, trouble cropped up
over Atticus’ recent appointment as defense counsel for Tom Robinson, a
Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Violet Ewell. The Ewells
were the lowest family in Maycomb society. But Mayelia was white and Tom
was black: no matter how trashy the girl might be, her honor had to be
upheld against a Negro. What angered many of the townspeople most was Atticus’s
attempt to truly defend Tom. Atticus and his children had several threats
aimed at pressuring them to let things stay as they’d always been in the
South. But Atticus felt Tom was innocent, and he would do all he could
to prove it. “Every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that
affects him personally,” he told Scout. Nevertheless, he had to be realistic.
They would probably lose, he explained, because they had been “licked a
hundred years before they had even started”,, but that was no reason not
to try. Atticus then extracted a promise from Scout not to fight her friends
at school – a difficult promise to keep. She heard her father called “nigger-lover,”
and she herself, for the first time in her life, was labeled a coward.
But Scout stayed true to her word; her father rarely asked for favors.
The day of Tom Robinson’s trial dawned
hot and droopy, but it still seemed everyone in Maycomb was packed into
the courthouse. Sheriff Heck Tate was the first witness. He testified that
on answering a summons from her father, he had found Mayella at her home,
her head bloodied, bruises on her arms and neck, and her right eye blackened.
She claimed to have been beaten and raped by Tom Robinson. Sheriff Tate
added that he personally felt Mayella had been battered by a left-handed
person; her principal wounds were on her right side.
The next witness, Robert E. Lee Ewell,
Mayella’s ne’er-do-well father, described coming home to find Tom attacking
his daughter. He had run Tom off, he said, and fetched the sheriff. just
before Mr. Ewell left the stand, Atticus demonstrated to the jury the fact
that Bob Ewell was left-handed.
Then Mayella Ewell testified. Through careful
questioning, Atticus was able to paint for the jury the type of life Mayella
led. The welfare check never went far enough (her father drank most of
it up); her many younger brothers and sisters were always dirty and sick;
there was never enough food or clothes, and the family rummaged through
the dump to find their belongings and food. Mayella was a lonely girl trying
to make the most of a miserable situation.
The final witness was the defendant himself,
Tom Robinson. As he took the oath, it became obvious to all that his left
arm was totally useless. It had been mutilated in a farming accident. This
gentle hired-hand could never have beaten up Mayella Ewell.
Atticus concluded his closing statement
using Thomas Jefferson’s words – “all men are created equal.” All men aren’t
created equal, he argued. One individual may be faster than another; some
people are gifted beyond the scope of most men. But in one arena this country
presumes that all men are created equal: in their rights before a court
Despite the many hours the jury spent deliberating,
Tom Robinson was declared guilty, Though Atticus tried to describe that
they would probably win when the case was appealed to a higher court, Tom
was left without hope. Only a few weeks later, as he tried to escape from
jail, he was shot and killed.
But the episode was not yet closed. Bob
Ewell’s anger still smoldered. Atticus Finch had made a fool of him, and
he publicly vowed revenge.
School started that autumn, and life slipped
back into the ordinary. For Halloween, the ladies of Maycomb decided to
produce an original pageant at the elementary school, and Scout was assigned
the role of a walking, talking ham, ingloriously costumed in chicken wire
and brown paper. After the pageant, she waited, humiliated, backstage with
Jem until everyone else had left. Then the two started for home.
It was dark, and Scout couldn’t see much
anyway because of her costume – but she could hear. Someone was following
them! As they started running, suddenly someone seized Scout and she fell.
After a brief, frenzied scuffle, the children dashed on toward the house.
This time Scout felt Jem jerked backwards to the ground. More scuffling,
then a dull, crunching sound – and Jem screamed.
“As Scout groped toward jem, she was grabbed
and her breath was slowly squeezed out of her. Suddenly the attacker lurched
back, twitched and fell. Scout heard someone breathing heavily, and then
a violent sobbing and coughing.” This someone picked Jem up and staggered
down the street to the Finch’s home.
After Sheriff Tate had surveyed the scene
of the fight, he reported to Atticus: “Bob Ewell’s lyin’ on the ground
under that tree down yonder with a kitchen knife stuck up under his ribs.
He’s dead, Mr. Finch.”
As the household calmed down that night
and Scout was reassured that Jem would live, she suddenly realized that
a stranger was standing behind the door – a man so white he looked as if
he never saw the sun, his cheeks thin and hollow, his eyes colorless, and
his hair disarranged and dead-looking. At last Scout had met Arthur Radley.
“Hi Boo,” she said, just as she always imagined greeting him.
According to Heck Tate, dragging shy Boo
Radley into the limelight of a murder trial would be “as sinful as killing
a mockingbird.” There would be no trial. Heck Tate’s report would read
that Ewell had fallen on his knife.
Boo Radley hardly ever left his home. But
one October night, when his friends, the children he had watched so frequently
from his window, needed him, he came. “Thank you for my children, Arthur,”
said Atticus Finch as Scout turned to walk Boo home.
Upon receiving an air rifle for Christmas,
Jem had been counseled by his father never to kill a mockingbird. It would
be a sin because they , don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”
To Kill a Mockingbird tells of the gradual
ethical awakening of Scout Finch and her brother Jem. Slowly they become
aware of the difference between truth and gossip, and learn that people
and things are often both more and less than what they seem; that kind,
easy-going neighbors can be twisted by prejudice and convention. After
the Halloween attempt on their lives, Jem and Scout finally see that the
fear and ignorance behind their own harassment of gentle Boo Radley was
not so different in essence from the suspicion and scapegoating that led
to the killing of Tom. To tease Boo was “as shameful as killing a mockingbird.