To Kill a Mockingbird Summary and Analysis
by Harper Lee
Aunt Alexandra has decided (and convinced Atticus) it would be best for the family if she stays with them for "a while," which worries Scout even though she knows there's nothing to be done. Aunt Alexandra establishes herself in the neighborhood and continues to pester the children about what they should and should not do. She is old-fashioned and proper, and often refers to the people of Maycomb in light of their family history. She seems to believe that behaviors and character traits are hereditary, passed on from one generation to the next - one family might have a Gambling Streak, or a Mean Streak, or a Funny Streak. She also judges families on the basis of how long they have been settled in the same place. Those who have stayed on the same land for many generations are deemed "Fine Folks," whereas Scout always thought that "Fine Folks" were those who "did the best they could with the sense they had." Scout reasons that in Aunt Alexandra's eyes, the Ewells, who are very poor, are "Fine Folks," because they have stayed on the same land by the town dump for three generations, which clearly is not the case.
Scout remembers how Maycomb was founded around an old tavern run by a man named Sinkfield. Its location was very far inland and away from the only form of transportation in that day - riverboats. Thus, the original town families tended to intermarry a great deal, until most people looked fairly similar in the town. Newcomers arrived rarely, and when a new person married a Maycomb family, the new genes were noticeable. Most old people still know each other so well that every behavior is somewhat predictable and repetitive.
Aunt Alexandra wants the children to know all about the Finch family and uphold its genteel heritage, but Atticus has not introduced them to the entirety of their family history, and instead has told them amusing stories, such as how their cousin Josh went insane at university. Aunt Alexandra tries to pressure Atticus into telling the children why they should behave and "live up to your name." Atticus makes an attempt, but when Scout begins to get upset with this strange side of her father she has never seen before, he returns to his original principles and finds himself incapable of passing on what Aunt Alexandra deems important. Scout is relieved when her father returns to the same old Atticus, and says she knew what he was trying to do, but that "it takes a woman to do that kind of work."
Scout asks her father what rape is. He tells her it is "carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent." Later on, Aunt Alexandra finds out that Scout and Jem went to the black church with Calpurnia and tries to forbid Scout from visiting Calpurnia's home. Moreover, Aunt Alexandra tries to make Atticus fire Calpurnia, but he refuses on the grounds that she's done an excellent job of running the house and raising the children, and the children love her. Jem takes Scout aside and tries to tell her not to antagonize their aunt. He and Scout get into a fist fight, which Atticus breaks up, saying that Scout doesn't have to obey Jem unless he can make her do so.
That night Scout feels something under her bed and thinks a snake his hiding there. She gets Jem to investigate, and they discover Dill hiding under Scout's bed. Dill tells a long story about being locked and chained in a basement and escaping with a traveling animal show. Then, he tells the real story of how he stole money from his mother's purse, and walked and hitched his way from the train station to the Finch house. Dill is very hungry and Scout gets him some cold cornbread to eat while mentally noting that Dill is now "home." Jem says that Dill should let his mother know where he is and goes to report the situation to Atticus. Scout remarks that by taking this action, Jem "broke the remaining code of our childhood". However, Atticus is lenient, and calls Miss Rachel to inform her of the situation and ask if Dill can stay the night. Miss Rachel appears on the scene and reprimands Dill but allows him to stay. Dill and Jem sleep in Jem's room, which adjoins Scout's room.
Late at night, Dill wakes Scout up and asks if he can sleep with her. He explains that his new father and mother don't seem interested in him, and that is why he left. They were kind to him, but did not seem to need him around. To Dill, it seemed they would rather spend time alone together that with him. Scout realizes how lucky she is to have a family that needs her. Then Dill suggests that they have a baby together, and even though he knows how babies are made, he makes up a long dreamy story about a magic island where babies are collected like flowers. Scout wonders why Boo Radley doesn't run away, and Dill replies saying maybe Boo doesn't have anywhere to run to.
Dill is allowed to stay for the summer. Just a week later, events surrounding the trial begin to come to a head. First, a group of men pay a call to Atticus at his home. Jem and Scout watch from inside. The men make allusions to Tom being moved to the Maycomb jail the next day (Sunday), because the trial will occur on Monday. They are concerned that the "Sarum bunch" will cause some trouble, but Atticus thinks they won't do anything (such as a lynching) on a Sunday night. Mr. Link Deas warns Atticus that he has everything to lose from the trial, but Atticus says that he wants the truth to come out. Jem is concerned that the men outside mean Atticus harm, but Atticus assures him later that those men are his friends and are not part of a gang or the Ku Klux Klan, whom Atticus claims is gone and will never come back. Jem overhears Aunt Alexandra warning Atticus that he is bringing disgrace to the family name. Jem is still concerned for Atticus's safety.
On Sunday there are more people at church than ever in Scout's memory - even Mr. Underwood from the town newspaper is there, and he almost never attends church. Later that afternoon, Atticus leaves the house in his car, carrying an electrical extension cord with a light bulb at the end. He refuses to allow Jem and Scout to come. Around 10:00pm, Jem starts changing his clothes and tells Scout that he's going downtown. Scout insists on coming, and they pick up Dill on the way. They look for Atticus in his office, but finally spy him sitting outside the county jail, with the light bulb providing light for him to read his book. The children stay a safe distance away so Atticus won't notice them. Jem feels reassured knowing where his father is, but as they are about to head home, four old cars come into town. A shadowy group of men emerges. Atticus informs them that the sheriff is nearby, but they counter that they called him into the woods on false pretenses. Atticus still seems unperturbed. Suddenly Scout runs out into the circle, but is taken aback when she realizes that these men are strangers to her. Atticus orders the children to go home, but Jem refuses. One man picks up Jem by the collar, and Scout kicks the man in the groin. Jem still refuses to leave.
Scout becomes interested in the men, who smell of "whiskey and pigpen" and are dressed in heavy dark clothes despite the summer night. Looking for a friendly face in the group, she recognizes Mr. Cunningham, the father of Walter from her class at school. Trying to be cordial, she innocently begins to talk to Mr. Cunningham about how Walter is a good boy, and recounts how they invited him home for dinner one day, and asks Mr. Cunningham to say hello to his son for her. Then she tries to engage him on the topic of his entailment, which she heard her father mention once, but notices that everyone is staring at her. Mr. Cunningham bends down to Scout's height and says, "I'll tell him you say hey, little lady." The men decide to disperse, and go home in their cars. Mr. Underwood reveals himself in a nearby window with a gun, pointing out that he had them covered the whole time. The Finch family and Dill head home.
Scout cries that night and Jem consoles her. Atticus says that Mr. Underwood despises black people, but was still willing to defend Atticus. Aunt Alexandra urges Atticus not to speak like that in front of Calpurnia, but Atticus protests as usual, claiming fairness and honesty are important. Scout wonders out loud why Mr. Cunningham wanted to hurt Atticus when he usually is Atticus's friend. Atticus explains that some people can forget that they are human beings when they become part of a mob. Clearly moved by the situation, Atticus explains to her that it took an eight-year-old girl to bring them to their senses.
Tom Robinson's trial begins, and despite warnings from Atticus to stay at home, Scout, Jem, and Dill go to the courthouse where the locals are all out picnicking in the park. They notice Mr. Dolphus Raymond drinking liquor from a paper bag and sitting with the black people. Jem explains that he married a black woman and that he has "mixed" children. Jem says that these children are "sad" because they don't feel accepted by black people or by white people - though they can be accepted in the North. They see one of the mixed children and Scout thinks he looks black. She asks Jem how to determine whether someone is "mixed" or not and Jem says that you can't tell by looking, you have to know their history. The Finch family is all white, but Jem considers that during Biblical times, it is possible some of their ancestors came from Africa. However, Jem notes that probably doesn't count because it was so long ago. In Maycomb county, if anyone has a drop of black blood, society considers them all black.
In the packed courthouse, the children have trouble getting seats until Reverend Sykes helps them find seats upstairs in the balcony where the black people sit. Scout observes Judge Taylor, whom she considers to be a rather good, sensible judge.
The trial begins with the testimony of the sheriff, Heck Tate. The prosecution's attorney, Mr. Gilmer, asks him about the events surrounding Tom Robinson and Mr. Ewell's daughter, Mayella. Mr. Tate states that on November 21, Mr. Ewell came to get him because "some nigger'd raped his girl." He says that he found Mayella on the floor, very beaten up, and that Mayella claimed Tom Robinson had taken advantage of her and beaten her. Atticus questions Tate next, asking whether anyone called a doctor. Mr. Tate says no. Atticus asks where Mayella had been beaten, and Mr. Tate says, with some hesitation, that her right eye and entire right side of her face were bruised, and she had scratches all around her neck.
Mr. Ewell is the next witness. Scout recollects mentally the way that the Ewells live, in a tiny hut made of planks and corrugated iron and flattened tin cans, surrounded by junk salvaged from the nearby dump. In the corner of the yard there are some geraniums planted in slop jars by Mayella, which appear to be the most cared for living things on the property. Scout concludes that the only thing separating Mr. Ewell from the black people around him, in terms of social standing, is that his skin is white.
Mr. Ewell is surly and crass in the witness chair, but the judge, who clearly does not respect the man, manages to keep everything orderly. Mr. Gilmer asks Mr. Ewell for his version of the events. Mr. Ewell claims that he heard Mayella screaming when he was coming in from the woods with kindling, and that he ran to the house to find Tom Robinson having sexual intercourse with her. He uses the highly offensive term "ruttin," which causes an uproar in the court. After the judge calms everyone down, Mr. Ewell says that he ran to get the sheriff. He implores the judge to "clean up" the "nigger-nest" that are his neighbors, claiming that his neighborhood is getting dangerous.
Atticus questions Mr. Ewell, asking whether a doctor was called, and Mr. Ewell again says that no doctor was called, saying that he has never called a doctor in his life and never thought of doing so. Atticus asks if Mr. Ewell remembers Mayella's injuries as being the same as described by the sheriff. Mr. Ewell says that he does. Atticus asks if Mr. Ewell can write, and he says he can, so Atticus asks him to write his name on an envelope. In so doing, it is revealed that Mr. Ewell is left-handed.
It is now Mayella's turn to be a witness. She is very distraught and cries in the witness stand, saying that she is afraid of Atticus. She finally tells Mr. Gilmer that her father asked her to chop up an old chiffarobe (chest of drawers) for kindling, but she didn't feel strong enough. When Tom Robinson walked by, she asked him to do it for a nickel. She claims that she went inside for the money, and Tom followed her, pushed her to the floor, and took advantage of her while she screamed and tried to fight back. Then, her father arrived and Tom ran away. After Mr. Gilmer has allowed Mayella to tell her story, it is Atticus's turn.
Atticus questions Mayella, but first asks her some background questions to show the jury what kind of family she comes from. At first, Mayella takes exception to Atticus calling her "Miss Mayella," and the judge has to explain that Atticus is imply being polite. He treats everyone on the stand with the same respect, no matter who they are or where they come from. In her cross-examination, we learn Mayella is nineteen and her family receives relief checks, but there isn't enough food to go around; her father seems to be a drunkard. Mayella went to school for a few years but none of her eight siblings go, and their mother is dead. Mayella doesn't seem to have any friends. Atticus asks if Mr. Ewell is a loving father, and with hesitation, Mayella says that he is "tolerable" except when he has been drinking. However, she insists that he never lays a hand on her or beats her. Atticus asks if this was the first time Tom Robinson has been invited into her house, and she jumps a little before she says that it was the first time. He asks Mayella if she remembers being beaten in the face, and Mayella first says no, but then yes. Atticus asks her to identify the man who raped her, and Mayella points to Tom, who Atticus asks to stand. Everyone in the courtroom notices that Tom's left arm is twelve inches shorter than his right, due to an accident in his youth when the arm got stuck a cotton gin. Atticus asks for more details about the struggle, then he asks many questions which Mayella doesn't answer: Why didn't the other children hear her screaming? Where were they? Why didn't they come running? Did she start screaming when she saw her father in the window? Did she get beaten up by her father, not Tom Robinson?
Mayella just says that she was taken advantage of, and if the upper class gentlemen won't prosecute Tom, they are cowards. Atticus appears to have found his exchange with the young woman distasteful. The court rests for ten minutes, but no one leaves the courthouse
Aunt Alexandra's views typify the general consensus of traditional assumptions held by the Maycomb community. She introduces the idea of "Fine Folks" to Scout, who will be forever perplexed about what criteria are used to determine whether or not a family fits this category. The rigidity of behavior patterns that Aunt Alexandra (and the rest of Maycomb) believe in demonstrate that individuals from white families also are subject to a certain amount of discrimination on the basis of their family's social stature. Individuals are not judged on their own qualities, but rather upon stereotypes forced upon their entire clan. Given the enormous amount of racism in Maycomb, it becomes incredibly unlikely that whites will treat blacks with respect. According to Aunt Alexandra's way of thinking, dishonesty and inferiority are traits somehow genetically endemic to the entire race.
Aunt Alexandra begins trying to form Scout into a proper Southern girl, and meets with much opposition. She has a strong idea of what Finch women should be like, based upon years of family tradition, and tries to impose this onto Scout. In this way, Scout is also a victim of this old-fashioned system for judging individuals, and as Aunt Alexandra tries to mold her into the image of Southern femininity, she gets a clear taste of what it is like to be held up to a stereotyped identity rather than being allowed to simply be herself.
Jem's behavior in Chapter 14 seems to betray Dill, and demonstrates his progress into the adult sphere. In addition, he suggests that Scout be less defiant toward their aunt, putting himself onto the adult side of the argument, to Scout's annoyance. The interaction between the two suggests that children (like Scout) are more immune to the attitudes and mindsets of the society around them, but as they grow older (like Jem), they unwittingly find themselves replicating and reinforcing society's traditional views.
Dill's story about his experiences with his parents show Scout how much she has to be grateful for. Even her aunt's constant pestering is a sign of her care for Scout, which is much better than the ambivalence that Dill experienced. Dill enjoys fantasy, as evidenced by his fanciful story about how babies are made. Even though he knows the real truth, he prefers the story he makes up. Dill's flights of fancy are an escape, like his physical escape from Meridian, into a world where he feels more at "home." When everyday life does not satisfy him, he can find solace again in his make believe world.
Scout and Dill's relationship, though close, is still childish and innocent, as shown in the end of the chapter. Their discussion about babies also suggests that Scout knows less about the facts of life than she claims in later chapters, and that it is possible that the meaning of rape is still unclear in her mind.
In Chapter 15, Atticus's stance at the door of the jail is symbolic of his role throughout the book. The night is dark, like the culture of bigotry and ignorance in Maycomb. Atticus's light illuminates the night, just as he strives to teach his community the truth and expose their unfairness. The light is an unusual addition to the scene: it would not occur outside the jail unless Atticus brought it there. Likewise, without people like Atticus going out of their way to help others, the darkness of prejudice could perpetuate itself indefinitely. Atticus doesn't hold a gun or any other weapon, but carries only a book. He is determined to guard the basic human rights of Tom and all others by using his knowledge and experience in law. With his high morals, Atticus will not lower himself to the violent measures used by others, even for his own self-defense.
Atticus also reveals his fatal flaw: he tends to be overly optimistic or unrealistically hopeful at times. For instance, his prediction that the Ku Klux Klan will never return is mistaken, and even though he doesn't believe anyone will cause trouble at the jail on a Sunday night, the town members prove him wrong. It is also noticeable unclear as to whether Atticus knew Mr. Underwood was looking out for him until after the mob disperses. If he did not know, then he could have put himself in considerable danger.
Scout's conversation with Mr. Cunningham emphasizes her knowledge of young Walter Cunningham and reminds Mr. Cunningham of the human bonds that connect everyone in the town. From the indistinguishable group of men, she singles him out and restores his individuality out of anonymity by addressing him by name and recalling his son and entailment. When people join together in a mob, they lose a feeling of responsibility for their actions, because they act as a group rather than as separate individuals. Scout's ability to separate Mr. Cunningham from his group is a result of the sheer innocence of her statements, which shows how inconceivable violence is to her, and forces them to reconsider their behavior. Mr. Cunningham, confronted with the shame of the group's plans and having been reminded of his own responsibility in them, decides to remove himself from the scene, and everyone else follows.
In Chapter 16, Scout's and Jem's discussion of "mixed" children demonstrates the irrationality of prejudice. A "mixed" child could look completely black or completely white, but would still be considered "black" either way. Yet, family history is also a poor determinant of race, because as Jem points out, the human race probably originated in Africa or the Middle East, and a drop of black blood makes a person "black." Therefore, neither image nor family history is infallible. Thus, discrimination is shown to be even more arbitrary and senseless.
The Finch children again find themselves welcomed and even honored among blacks when Reverend Sykes invites them to the balcony, and chairs are vacated in the front row on their behalf.
In Chapter 17, the Ewells belong to the bottom set of Maycomb's whites. Mr. Ewell shows himself to be arrogant and crude. Maycomb reluctantly has bent the laws for the Ewells, and Mr. Ewell's manner is of one who is beyond the law. He is described as a "bantam cock" who struts around arrogantly yet ridiculously, and he tries to invoke the good humor of the audience, whines to the judge about being asked to prove his ability to write, and offends everyone with his language, putting the court into five minutes of uproar. The chapter depicts him as brutish, insensitive, and confident of his ability to get away with his perjury.
In this chapter, Atticus demonstrates his excellent skills as a lawyer. Atticus treats both the sheriff and Ewell with respect, and carefully asks questions that poke holes in the Ewells' claims. For instance, he first determined exactly what injuries Mayella suffered, and then manipulates Ewell into revealing that he is left-handed, and that a left-handed man most likely beat Mayella, causing bruising on the right side of her face.
In Chapter 18, we learn that Mayella's life is one of miserable poverty and deprivation. She shows she is accustomed to being treated without respect when she thinks Atticus is deliberately mocking her by calling her "Miss." She seems hopelessly immature for nineteen years old and her whiney or tearful attitude suggests a subtle sly manipulation of her audience, as if on some level she wants to capitalize off of whatever pity she can invoke for her social state and extend it toward her fictionalized state as a supposed rape victim. She also appears quite afraid of Atticus. There is good in Mayella, her flowers are the only beautiful thing at the Ewell residence, and Scout thinks that Mayella seems to make an effort to keep herself clean, but her actions seem motivated by cowardice. She is initially reluctant to say Tom's name when asked to name her rapist, but she does surrender to fear and accuse him, thus putting her fear of public humiliation over the value of his life.
Scout and Jem listen intently to everything that is said in the courtroom. Here, Scout and Jem watch their father in action. He shows himself to be a highly respectful man, and he carefully and deliberately outlines each piece of evidence. Atticus never shows disapproval of either Mr. Ewell or Mayella, and is kind and courteous, despite insults he receives. This chapter builds the trial's suspense quite significantly, as the reader begins to understand Atticus's situation. He knows that Tom Robinson is innocent and it seems that Mr. Ewell is most likely to blame for Mayella's injuries. Clearly, more will soon be revealed.
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