|Atticus Finch (actor Gregory Peck in the film, To Kill a Mockingbird, by author Harper Lee)
To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee and published in 1960 to great acclaim. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. It has never been out of print and has been translated into forty languages. Written by a young Alabama woman, Harper Lee always considered her novel to be a simple love story. Today, it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature. Harper Lee has never written a novel since then.
Plot and Plot Structure
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is the story of a family and a small Southern town in the 1930s. The Finch family are the central characters and the action follows Jem, Jean Louise (Scout) and their father Atticus Finch through three years, focusing on the summers when the children's friend, Dill, stays with his aunt. Scout moves from six to nine years old and Jem grows from a nine year old to a twelve year old. The plot revolves around two main suspenseful storylines 1) The trial for the rape of a white woman and conviction of an unjustly accused black man and 2) the children's fear and fascination with Boo Radley, a man who has been imprisoned in his house for thirty years by his father. Scout, Jem and Dill attempt various ways to get Boo to come out. Still, they are terrified of this man, and think that he is a monster or a ghost. They ponder whether or not they can get him to come out, even though they're deathly afraid of actually seeing him. Will Boo ever leave the houses and is he dangerous?
The action takes place in a small Southern town - Maycomb, Alabama, at the height of the Great Depression. Everyone knows everyone else, and gossip is shared with a touch of fondness. The story is narrated by a gown-up Scout, looking back to her childhood. Their father, Atticus Finch, is a widowed lawyer, who, along with their long term housekeeper, Calpurnia, raises his two children. Here is Scout's description of Maycomb from the perspective of an adult:
"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town
when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets
turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks,
the courthouses sagged in the square. Somehow,
it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a
summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover
carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of
of the live oaks on the square Men's stiff collars
wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies before
noon, after their three-o'clock naps , and by nightfall
were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat
and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then. They ambled
across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores
around it, took their time about everything. A day
was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.
There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to
go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with." (Chapter One)
We meet Scout and Jem's neighbors - mostly a group of old ladies who have known the Finch children from the time they were born. Some of the ladies are kind; some of them are ornery. We also are introduced to the caste system in Maycomb and how it relates to different neighborhoods. There's a section for poor white people and, behind the town dump, is the black neighborhood. Scott and Jem live in the middle class neighborhood. Blacks and whites lived separately. For a fuller understanding of "To Kill a Mockingbird" it is important to know the racial mores of 1930s Alabama.
In 1877, the Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Florida, Arkansas) enacted a set of laws and rules for behavior called Jim Crow laws. The main ideas on which these laws were based were 1) the supposed innate inferiority of blacks to whites and (2 the absolute separation of the races. All of these laws were meant to exclude blacks from public transport, public facilities (white hospitals would actually refuse to treat blacks), juries, certain jobs and neighborhoods -- and even from public drinking fountains. Up until the mid 1960s, there were still signs over drinking fountains and outside theaters that read "colored" and "white only". Behind these laws was the concept of "separate but equal". Of course there was no equality, and black people lived in a state of constant terror of breaking a rule or a law. Lynching was a common occurrence for breaking the rigid code of behavior for black people when dealing with white people:
1) never impute dishonorable intentions to a white person
2) Never assert or even imply that a white person is lying
3) Never suggest that a white person is from an inferior class
4) Never lay claim to demonstrate superior knowledge or intelligence
5) Never curse a white person
6) Never laugh at a white person
7) Never comment on the appearance of a white woman
Tom is accused of coming into the Ewell's front yard to help Mayella Ewell break up a chiffarobe (dresser) for firewood and then coming into the house and attacking and raping her. She has bruises on one side of her face. Tom denies having done any of what he is accused. In 1930's Alabama, no white person believes Tom and, in explaining his actions, Tom breaks several of the "rules" for a black person. By saying he felt sorry for her, he suggests that he is in the superior position. By telling a different story of that afternoon, he is implying that she is lying. Mr. Gilmer, the District Attorney, questions Tom, who is on the witness stand:
"Then you were mighty polite to do all that chopping and hauling for her, weren't you, boy?"
Even though Tom Robinson is a grown man in this thirties, he is called "boy" This was the custom then.
"Tried to help her, I says."
Mr. Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury.
"You're a mighty good fellow for doing this for not one penny."
"Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try mor'n the
rest of em."
"YOU felt sorry for HER, you felt SORRY for her? (Chapter Seventeen)
"The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. But the damage was done."
Mayella insists that she asked him inside to bust up the chiffarobe. Tom says "No suh - she said she had somthin' for me to do inside " Gilmer responds; "She says she asked you to bust up a chiffarobe, is that right?" "No suh, it ain't..." "Then you say she's lying, boy?"
Atticus Finch is Tom's lawyer, and he evokes the town's wrath because he is defending a black man. The summer of the trial is the focus of the middle section of the novel. Even before the actual trial, Atticus is threatened by a group of men from the town as he sits outside of Tom's jail at midnight. The men are intent on lynching Tom (hanging him from a tree). "You know what we want. Get aside from the door Mr. Finch" (Chapter Fifteen) Atticus is intent on protecting him. It is actually Scout, who with Jem and Dill have followed Atticus to see what he is doing, who diffuses the situation. Just as the mob was getting ready to push Atticus away, Scout sees a father of a boy in her class.
"Hey Mr. Cunningham.. I go to school with Walter. Tell him Hey for me, won't you?" (Chapter Fifteen)
All the men are ashamed at what they are doing and how innocent Scout is. Mr. Cunningham finally tells her that he will say "Hey" to Walter. The crowd breaks up. Atticus tries to explain what the children have seen.
"It took an eight-year old child to bring 'em to their senses, didn't it",
said Atticus. That proves something - that a gang of wild animals
can be stopped, simply because they're still human.
you children last night made Mr. Cunningham stand in
my shoes for a minute. That was enough." (Chapter Fifteen)
In the trial, Atticus proves the Tom Robinson was physically incapable of the attack on Mayella (because of his crippled arm) and suggests that her father may have beaten her for having Tom come into the house. This will be the cause of Ewell's attack on Jem and Scout as they return home from a Halloween pageant a few months later. He feels humiliated by Atticus' suggestion that he and not a black man is the one who beat Mayella.
The other part of the plot focuses on the children's obsession with the mysterious Boo Radley. The town is mystified as to why Boo Radley has been a recluse, never leaving his house for twenty-five years. Scout and Jem are both frightened and fascinated by this man. Jem describes how he imagines Boo: "Boo was about six-and-a-half foot tall judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that's why his hands were bloodstained - if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time." (Chapter One)
Scout, Jem, and Dill dare each other to go into the Radley front lawn to try and get Boo to come out. They soon learn more about Boo.
There is a tree, with a hole in it's trunk, that stands in front of the Radley house and as Jem and Scout pass by the house and the tree, they begin to notice that little gifts are being left in the hole. First, there is a pack of gum, then a pocket watch and then a ball of twine and two little children carved in soap. The reader and the children suspect it is Boo Radley leaving these gifts for Scout and Jem. And it is Boo Radley who saves them Halloween night. He carries Jem, whose arm has been broken, and accompanies Scout back home. In the Finch house he stands in the shadows until Atticus introduces him to the children. Scout takes Boo's hand and leads him back to his house. The children now know that Boo is a sensitive, caring person, and the novel ends with that night.
Scout (Jean Louise) Finch
Scout is a tomboy who wears overalls and climbs trees with her older brother, Jem, who is her best friend. Her other good friend is a little boy, Dill, who comes to visit his aunt every summer. Dill joins the Finch children in their attempts to get Boo Radley to come out of the house. Scout is not afraid to fight boys when they insult her or her family. When Jem turns twelve, however, things change. Scout tells the reader that "Overnight, Jem had acquired an alien set of values and was trying to impose them on me: several times he went so far as to tell me what to do. After one altercation, when Jem hollered 'It's time you started bein' a girl and acting right.' I burst into tears and fled to Calpurnia"(Chapter Twelve) She is intelligent (Atticus has taught her to read before first grade) and has faith in the goodness of the people of Maycomb. The novel takes her through a journey from innocence to the knowledge of the hatred and prejudice that emerge surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson. With Atticus guiding her, Scout learns that good and evil can coexist. Evil does not vanquish the good in people in general.
Jeremy "Jem" Finch
Jem matures throughout the course of the novel. He is a sensitive boy who is more affected by his mother's death and Tom Robinson's trial because he is older. He spends the summer days playing with Scout and Dill and dreams of becoming a football player. When he turns twelve, he backs off a bit from childhood games and Scout and Dill. Because he is older than Scout, he has more understanding of the racism in the town. When the unfair verdict of guilty is announced by the all white jury, Jem is crushed. "Atticus (his children call him Atticus rather than Dad) How could they do it, how could they?" (Chapter Twenty-Two) Jem is very protective of Scout and is always there to support her if she gets in trouble.
Dill is a little boy, from Meridian, Mississippi, who visits Maycomb to stay with his aunt every summer. He becomes like a brother to Scout and Jem and takes part in all their day-to-day lives. There are no movie theaters in Maycomb, but Dill has seen "Dracula" twenty times. Jem wants him to tell them the story - which he does with great enthusiasm.
The Finch family housekeeper who has acted as a mother figure for Jem and Scout since their mother dies. She is stern with the children when needed, but loves them unconditionally. She is one of the few black people in Maycomb who knows how to read and write. She teaches Scout to write while Atticus teaches her to read.
Cunningham heads the poorest family in Maycomb. He is a cruel and uneducated man who lives with his six children and feeds them by hunting small animals and using his welfare money (which he usually spends on getting drunk.) He is the "villain" of the novel. He is a vehement racist and abuses his children. He leads the mob to the jailhouse to lynch Tom Robinson. It is Scout's innocent greeting to him that shamed him into stopping the crowd of men. After the verdict (of guilty), Walter Cunningham spits in Atticus's face and vows revenge on him for suggesting that he was the one who beat Mayella and that Mayella had invited Tom into the house and tried to kiss him. Atticus has broken the Southern code of believing that white people are to be believed and black people are always to be mistrusted.
It is fitting to revisit the qualities of a hero, because Atticus embodies all of them.
1. A hero goes beyond the limits of society to find new ways of seeing
2. A hero acts in perfect accordance with his conscience
3. A hero is willing to take risks
Atticus Finch goes beyond the limits of a racist Southern town to defend a black man. He is threatened and Scout and Jem are tormented at school. Scout wants to know why he's doing it;
"This case, Tom Robinson's case is something that goes
to the essence of a man's character - Scout I couldn't go
to church and worship God if I didn't try to help that man." (Chapter Nine)
In the courtroom, Atticus' summation to the jury addresses the code of behavior that has doomed Tom Robinson:
"The defendant is not guilty, but someone in the courtroom
is. She (Mayella) has committed no crime, she has broken
a rigid and time honored code of our society, a code so severe that
whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst..She was white
and she tempted a Negro. She did something that, in our society
is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. No code mattered
to her before she broke it." (Chapter Nineteen)