To Kill a Mockingbird Summary and Analysis
by Harper Lee
It is now September, and Jem and Scout are about to go to sleep on their cots on the back porch. Scout sees a roly-poly bug and goes to kill it. Jem stops her, saying the bug never did anything to harm her. Scout heeds his request and carefully takes the bug outside, noting internally that if anything, Jem is becoming more like a lady than she is. As she returns to her cot, she thinks of Dill and remembers his story of the day Tom Robinson died in late August.
Atticus and Calpurnia were driving out to see Tom's wife when they spotted Jem and Dill on their way back from swimming. Jem and Dill ask for a ride, and although hesitant at first, Atticus finally agrees to let them come along. Apparently, when Tom's wife saw Atticus and Calpurnia, she seemed to faint, falling to the ground in a heap. Tom's death was only news in Maycomb for two days, and was regarded as "typical," since prevailing opinion was that black men tend to run away without any plan.
Scout reflects that "in the secret courts of men's hearts," nothing Atticus could have said could have freed Tom. Upon hearing the news, Mr. Ewell is rumored to have said, "one down and about two more to go," and Scout is afraid for Atticus. Jem confidently tells Scout that Mr. Ewell won't really take any action on his threats.
School is in session again, and Scout has lost her fear of the Radley place. Every now and then she daydreams about seeing Boo sitting on the porch, and greeting him as if they spoke to each other every day. School is hard for the Finch children: their peers are generally somewhat cold toward them due to Atticus defending Tom Robinson, as if their parents had instructed them to be civil but not outwardly friendly.
One day during Current Events, Scout's class gets into a discussion about Hitler and the persecution of the Jews. Her teacher, Miss Gates, speaks at length about how the German dictatorship allows for the Jews to be persecuted by a prejudiced leader, but she claims that in America, "we don't believe in persecuting anybody." Scout finds Miss Gates hypocritical because she remembers that on the day of Tom's trial, she overheard Miss Gates say that she thought it was, "time somebody taught them a lesson, they thought they was getting' way above themselves, an' the next thing they think they can do is marry us." "Them" meant black people. In Scout's mind, this doesn't make sense and she goes to talk to Jem about it. Jem responds very angrily, and tells her he never wants to talk about anything having to do with that trial again. Scout is taken aback and goes to Atticus, who assures her that Jem just needs some time to think about things, and then he'll be himself again.
Scout relates a few events that have recently occurred in Maycomb. Mr. Ewell holds down a job for a few days, but then is fired from the WPA (Work Projects Administration) for laziness. One night, alone in his study, Judge Taylor finds the strange shadow of a prowler in his house and proceeds with his reading, but with a gun across his lap. Helen Robinson has been working on the property of Mr. Link Deas, but walks nearly a mile out of her way in order to avoid walking past the Ewell's house, because they "chunk" at her when she passes by. When Mr. Link Deas finds out, he approaches the Ewell house and yells to them, warning them not to bother Helen, or else he'll have them put in jail. The next day, Mr. Ewell follows Helen to work, "crooning foul words" the entire way, but Mr. Link Deas again threatens him with jail and he stops this behavior. Aunt Alexandra thinks that these events bode poorly for Atticus, as she is convinced that Ewell's threat after the trial carries more weight than Atticus is willing to believe.
It is nearly Halloween, and Mrs. Grace Merriweather writes a pageant for Maycomb people to perform about the history of the county. She wants children to play the parts of Maycomb's agricultural products, and Scout is assigned to play the part of the pork. She will wear a large costume made of chicken wire and wrapped around with brown cloth, which comes to just above her knees. She can't put it on or take it off without someone else's help because it pins her arms down, and she can't see well through the eyeholes. Jem escorts her to the pageant, because Atticus is too tired to go, and Aunt Alexandra opts to stay home with him.
Jem and Scout walk past the Radley house on the way to the school, where the pageant and country fair will be held. It's very dark, and they can barely see a few feet ahead of themselves. Cecil Jacobs, a classmate of Scout's runs out to scare them, and definitely succeeds. Cecil and Scout entertain themselves at the fair until the pageant begins, visiting different booths and taking part in the fair. When the pageant begins, Scout goes backstage to prepare for her entrance. The section before her entrance, a history of Maycomb, is very long, and she decides to squat down inside her costume to rest. Lulled by Miss Merriweather's speech, Scout falls asleep. During the last song, she wakes up and realizes she has missed her cue. She rushes out to the stage, and makes a very amusing entrance that pleases the entire crowd. Scout is embarrassed about her performance and stays backstage with Jem until everyone leaves. She decides to keep her costume on for the walk home, and Jem escorts her.
The walk back is even darker than before, and near the school, Scout remembers that she left her shoes backstage. She is thinking of returning to get them, when Jem stops her because he hears a strange noise. Scout hears it too, but thinks maybe it's just Cecil again. They call out taunts to Cecil in order to get a response, but there is only silence. Jem thinks maybe Scout should take off her costume, but she doesn't have any clothes underneath, and can't get her dress on in the dark. They are almost home, near the dark shadow of the tree by the Radleys' house, and are trying to walk faster. It sounds like the person behind them is wearing thick cotton pants. The next time they stop walking, the footsteps behind them suddenly quicken into a run. Jem yells to Scout to run, but her costume throws her off balance. Something is crushed against her and she hears metal ripping. Jem's hand tries to pull her, but she is tangled up in her costume. There is a crunching sound and Jem screams. The man whom they are struggling with grabs Scout and begins to strangle her, when suddenly he is jerked backwards and thrown to the ground. Scout thinks Jem must have saved her, but she still can't see anything. She hears the sound of someone breathing heavily and, walking toward the tree to lean on, reaches out with her toes to find a person on the ground with stubble and the smell of stale whiskey. She makes her way in the direction of the road, and in the streetlight she sees a man carrying Jem, whose arm is hanging down at an odd angle.
Scout arrives home. Aunt Alexandra calls Dr. Reynolds and Atticus calls Heck Tate, the sheriff. Alexandra removes Scout's costume and hands her Scout's infamous, un-ladylike overalls to put on. Scout says she will never forget that gesture. Jem is unconscious and has a broken arm. Scout checks on him, noting the man who carried him sitting quietly in the corner. She assumes he is a countryman she doesn't recognize who happened to hear the fight and come running. The sheriff investigates outside and comes back to report that Mr. Ewell is lying outside dead with a kitchen knife in his ribs.
Scout tells the story of what happened outside to Atticus, the sheriff, and everyone else assembled. Mr. Tate notes the mark that Mr. Ewell's knife made in Scout's costume, and points out that Mr. Ewell meant to seriously harm or kill the children. When Scout points out the man who carried Jem, she finally takes a good look at him. He is very, very pale, with thin cheeks and feathery hair, and seems somewhat tense and nervous. She suddenly recognizes him as Boo Radley and, moved to tears, says "Hey, Boo."
The doctor returns and everyone moves to the back porch. Trying to be as friendly as possible, Scout leads Boo to the porch and assists him into a rocking chair placed in a darker corner, where she thinks he will feel most comfortable. As she helps Boo along, she feels the odd sensation of her fantasy about finding him sitting on the porch one day coming true. Meanwhile, the others are discussing who killed Mr. Ewell. Atticus thinks that Jem must have done it since Scout named Jem as her protector in her story. However, the sheriff insists continually that Mr. Ewell fell onto his knife and killed himself, which irritates Atticus, who wants Jem to be treated as fairly as anyone else and not have exceptions made. After much arguing, finally the sheriff yells out that he's not trying to protect Jem (he is trying to protect Boo). The sheriff urges Atticus, this once, to accept the situation even if it's not perfect according to law: Mr. Ewell was responsible for Tom's death, and the sheriff urges Atticus to "let the dead bury the dead." He says that it would be a sin to drag shy Boo Radley out into the limelight, and declares officially that Mr. Ewell fell on his own knife. Atticus, deeply moved by this revelation, asks Scout if she understands. Scout assures him that she does, explaining that having it another way would be like shooting a mockingbird. Atticus looks at Scout with a sense of wonder, and thanks Boo for the lives of his children.
Scout asks Boo if he'd like to say good night to Jem. Boo doesn't say a word; he just nods. Scout sees that Boo would like to reach out and touch Jem, and tells him he can. She shows him how to gently stroke Jem's hair. After Boo does this, she perceives that he wants to leave, and she leads him to the porch, where he asks her in a near-whisper, "Will you take me home?" She accepts, and allows him to escort her down the block, just like a lady should. She leads him home and he goes inside his house and shuts the door. The narrator, speaking as an older Scout, says she never saw him again.
Standing on Boo's porch, Scout look out over the neighborhood imagining how Boo must have seen it, and how, for all these years, he watched over "his" children. Back home, Scout sits with Atticus, who begins to read her one of the scary children's stories he has picked up, which ironically mirrors the story of Boo Radley. Scout says she wasn't scared by the night's events, saying just as Jem had on their fateful walk home, that "nothing's really scary 'cept in books." She falls asleep while Atticus reads to her, and wakes up while he carries her to bed. She tells him she was listening all the time, and that the book is about a character who was chased and caught and then found to be innocent and "real nice." Atticus tells her, "most people are, when you finally see them." Atticus then spends the rest of the night by Jem's side.
Maycomb's reaction to the news of Tom's death demonstrates how willingly the citizens interpret the actions of one black person negatively in order to maintain their social construct of subjugating the black population. Scout realizes that the decision to see the world fairly can only occur within each individual's heart, and that there is no way to reach a person who has not become personally convinced of the equality of all races and the virtue of following a moral course of action.
However, for the black community, the news of Tom's death is devastating, as exemplified by Helen's collapse. Atticus could not promise Tom that he would eventually go free, because he did not want to promise anything he couldn't be sure of. Unable to live an indefinite existence, Tom lost his courage and determination, and chose to run for freedom. Possibly, like Jem, Tom lost hope that people would listen to the voice of reason. Given all the injustices he had experienced in his life, Tom did not think it possible that his case would be appealed or that the outcome would be favorable.
The roly-poly incident is yet another example of Jem's increasing maturity. Having witnessed Tom's trial and his family's reaction of his death, Jem has an even greater sense of the need to protect the innocent. Therefore, the roly-poly bug is a symbol of the weak and oppressed who are often "stomped on" by society. Jem believes in the equality of all people, and his choice to protect the roly-poly demonstrates how deeply ingrained this value is. Jem is becoming a young man of honor and moral virtue, just like his father.
In Chapter 26, the coldness of the schoolchildren demonstrates that children who grow up in racist households tend to develop racist attitudes quite early in life. Just as Jem and Scout grow up in a household valuing fairness and equality, and therefore adhere to such morals. This dichotomy once again shows how people's identities and values are shaped by the society and family life in which they are raised.
In this chapter, Boo has made the full transition from monster to sad recluse and potential friend. The events of the trial have made the children consider that maybe Boo needs a good home to run to (Dill's theory) or maybe he prefers to stay out of contact with people (Jem's theory). Scout dreams of finally getting to talk to Boo, showing her desire to make him feel at home, and to show him that people might not be so bad.
Miss Gates's statement that the persecuted Jews have contributed to every society they've been a part of implies that blacks are not contributing in any way to American society. She hypocritically believes that the Jews deserve sympathy because they are white, whereas the persecuted group of the blacks still deserves second-class citizenship. She also insinuates that because the United States is a democracy, fairness is available for all, when blacks are suffering from the same kinds of discrimination and segregation that Jews experience in Hitler's dictatorial regime. The "democracy" she speaks of is not an all-inclusive one that offers the same rights to all. Scout's awareness of her teacher's hypocrisy once again demonstrates her powerful understanding of the true meaning of fairness and equality. Jem is clearly still distraught by the trial, and needs time to allow his still adolescent mind to understand the events in a more adult way.
In Chapter 27, Mr. Link Deas is revealed as another member of the forces working for fairness in Maycomb by his defense of Helen against the menace of Mr. Ewell. (During Tom's trial, Mr. Deas stood up and shouted that he had never had a problem with Tom Robinson, and that he was a good worker and a good man. The judge immediately quieted him and instructed the jury to ignore his statements in order to avoid a mistrial.) Meanwhile, Mr. Ewell is again shown to be cowardly and evil, threatening those who can defend themselves least. This chapter continues to provide a building tale of suspense, as the book is clearly coming to a close, and we will soon learn how Jem broke his arm, and the final events the novel has been leading up to. The ordinary and harmless event Halloween pageant develops into an evening fraught with horror.
The night of the pageant, in Chapter 28, is filled with foreshadowing of the violent events to occur. Before the children leave, Aunt Alexandra has a feeling that something is going wrong and Scout notices a strange look pass over her face. Alexandra blames it on "someone walking over her grave". The intense darkness of the night also creates a sense of foreboding, as does Scout's inability to see things around her, trapped inside the large, bulky costume. Then, Scout misses her cue, and ends the night upset and embarrassed. When she and Jem turn around to go back for her shoes, the school lights go out, leaving the children alone in the darkness.
The attack occurs all around Scout and the sense of her helplessness makes the account of the violence more intense. Though the book began with a fear for the monstrous, phantom-like figure of Boo Radley, this chapter solidifies a reversal: Boo becomes the children's savior against the real evil, a human man. One reason that Dill dwells in fantasy rather real life is that nothing can be as frightening in fantasy as it can be in reality. Now that the children have grown older, they come to know vividly that the real source of evil to be concerned about comes from their fellowman, not from imaginary ghosts.
In Chapter 29, with the description of his hair as "feathery," Boo is immediately identified with the "mockingbird," especially with his slight appearance and fluttery hand movements. He has finally become a real person, completing the progression from monster to human; meanwhile, Mr. Ewell's evilness has turned him into a human monster, whose bristling facial stubble felt by Scout suggests an animal-like appearance. When Scout addresses Boo directly, she makes her final step into the beginnings of maturity, leaving her childhood imaginary tales behind. As a mature young girl, she recognizes Boo as a real person, and treats him as such.
In Chapter 30, Atticus is trying to uphold the law by demanding that Jem be brought to trial for the crime of murdering Mr. Ewell, not realizing that the sheriff is trying to protect Boo. As seen before in the case of the Ewell's, who are allowed to hunt in season, the law must be bent in order to protect certain people; in this case Boo needs protection. When Atticus understands the sheriff's motivation, he relents, realizing that it is in everyone's best interests to allow Boo to unofficially punish the Ewell's for the crime of trying to send Tom to his death. By this point, the "mockingbird" theme has already been made clear, but this chapter rehashes the idea that the innocent should not suffer in the hands of the powerful. When Scout compares putting Boo on trial to shooting a mockingbird, she again demonstrates her newfound maturity and adult understanding. Scout understands it is necessary to prevent Boo from receiving excessive public attention, and that Boo should be allowed to live the quiet life he has always known. She knows that at heart, Boo is a good person.
In Chapter 31, Scout finally acts the part of the hospitable Southern lady in assisting Boo around the house and seeing him home. She interacts with him in a serious and grown-up fashion. Though she runs to tell Jem when she first discovers Boo is in their house, she reacts against this childish reflex and tactfully gives Boo his privacy. Scout has learned how to be a guide for others, as shown by her symbolic act of leading Boo to safety. She can visualize things from his perspective now, as Atticus once advised her to do, and from his front porch, she imagines how he has seen the years pass, and watched herself, Jem and Dill grow up. In this reflective moment, Scout also neatly summarizes the events of the book, reminding the reader of all that passed for her and her family to reach this point.
Scout shows that even though she has discovered that people (Mr. Ewell) can be evil in unfathomable ways, she still upholds her faith in humankind and can face anything with courage. Unlike Dill, she finds that the real world does follow patterns, and once one knows them, the world of fantasy and books is the only place where real fear can exist. Despite her growth and maturation, Scout is still a child at only eight years old, and we last see her as she falls asleep in her father's arms. The author very carefully avoids giving the reader any information about Scout's future. Instead, we are left with an image of Scout when she is discovering fundamental truths about the world. She understands that the world carries both good and evil, and she has an unshakeable faith in the inherent goodness of "folks."
To Kill a Mockingbird Essays and Related Content
- To Kill a Mockingbird: Major Themes
- To Kill a Mockingbird: Essays
- To Kill a Mockingbird: Lesson Plan
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- To Kill a Mockingbird: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Harper Lee: Biography
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- About To Kill a Mockingbird
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-12
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-24
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 25-31
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