The novel begins with Scout Finch, who is now an adult, remembering the summer
when her brother Jem (Jeremy), broke his arm and recalling the incidents that
led to this event. She introduces the town of Maycomb, Alabama, her hometown,
her father Atticus Finch, attorney and state legislator, Calpurnia, their
"Negro" cook and housekeeper, Dill (Charles Baker Harris), and various
She traces her family's history to England and tells that Simon Finch, being
persecuted for being a Methodist, left England for America He built his home
on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He
practiced medicine and died a rich man.
Tradition had it that the men in the family remained on Simon's homestead,
Finch's Landing. Even though the family lost everything except the land during
the Civil War, the custom of living there still prevailed. At the time of
this story, Scout's aunt was the Finch who remained at the Landing.
Atticus Finch, Scout's father, studied law in Montgomery and his brother,
John "Jack" Hale Finch attended medical school in Boston. Atticus then returned
to Maycomb, the county seat of Maycomb County, and opened an office. As he
hardly had any money, his office contained "little more than a hat rack,
a spittoon, a checkerboard and unsullied Code of Alabama". His first
case which he lost because the men that he was defending would not take his
advice, had a profound effect on his outlook on criminal law and he avoided
that aspect of law.
Scout then describes life in Maycomb, "an old tired town when I first knew
it". Since it was the time of the Depression, she says that most people were
in "no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money
to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County".
She says that they live on the main residential street in town, with their
cook, an old black woman named Calpurnia. 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
During one summer the children meet a boy who is new to the neighborhood.
His name is Charles Baker Harris or Dill for short and he is staying with
his aunt, Miss Rachel Haverford. Since her house is next door to the Finch's,
the children become good friends and play a lot together. They make up a number
of different games and dramatize stories from books that they have read.
When their repertoire of stories is depleted, they begin to focus on 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. The Radley Place is treated as a kind of haunted house, and Boo Radley
as the neighborhood ghost. Though never seen by the children, he is described
by Jem to be "about six-and-a-half feet tall, ...(having) a long jagged
scar across his face, ...yellow and rotten teeth, ..eyes (that) popped, and
he drooled most of the time."
The reader also meets Scout's teacher, Miss Caroline, who doesn't appear
to have any understanding of the community, and makes life quite miserable
for Scout. She doesn't recognize that Scout is trying to be helpful when she
explains why Walter Cunningham doesn't have his lunch and why he can't accept
her offer to lend him some money. Instead she punishes Scout, thinking hat
she is being impertinent.
Miss Caroline Fisher, deals poorly with children. She is a 21-year-old teacher,
new to the Maycomb County schools. When she reads a children's story about
cats and the children are inattentive: as Scout says, "Miss Caroline seemed
unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade,
...were immune to imaginative literature."
At lunchtime, Scout takes out her anger on Walter and starts to fight with
him. Jem interferes and when he finds out what prompted Scout to fight, he
invites Walter to join them for lunch at their house.
During lunch, Scout gets into trouble again, this time with Calpurnia, when
she makes a negative comment about Walter's eating habits.
Scout's troubles continue when she returns to school in the afternoon. When
Miss Caroline finds out that Scout knows how to read, she becomes very angry
and berates Scout for being more advanced than the rest of the class.
In the evening, Scout complains to her father, but he finally convinces her
that Miss Caroline means well and that she must continue going to school.
The following summer, Scout and Jem continue their make-belive games and
bravely assail the Radley home, trying to get a glimpse of Boo. They never
see him; but they do 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 you."
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 children."
The first chapter establishes the setting of the story and the reader gets
a feel for the small southern town of Maycomb, Alabama. The reader is introduced
to the themes that exist throughout the book: eccentricity, superstition,
and prejudice. Ones social strata is very important and the people follow
conventional rules very closely.
Atticus Finch is introduced as a patient and loving father as well as an
upright, solidly moral person. The fact that he has a "profound distaste
for criminal law" foreshadows the emotions he has surrounding Tom Robinson's
trial later in the story.
The Radley house is described as being old and dark, with "rain-rotted
shingles drooped over the eves of the veranda", in contrast to the rest
of the neighborhood. The Radleys are also shown to be different from the other
people by their desire to "keep to themselves" and their lack of interest
to interact socially with their neighbors.
The book opens with a simple story about how Jem broke his arm at the age
of twelve, which will also conclude the book. From the outset, the novel begins
to concern itself with the question of "why did this particular situation
In the second chapter, the reader meets the children who are in Scout's class.
They are representational of their families: Walter Cunnigham is polite and,
like his father, unwilling to accept charity; Burris Ewell is rude, disheveled
and dirty. The same traits that make his family disliked by everyone in the
Scout is very disillusioned about school and her teacher and doesn't understand
why Miss Caroline would forbid Scout to read on her own at home. It appears
that her teacher is attempting to utilize Progressive Educational strategies
but is misinterpreting the concepts of this teaching methodology. In one day's
time, Scout learns several important lessons about people and behavior.
The reader learns that Scout is bright and insightful. Even though she is
a young child, she assumes the responsibility of speaking out for her classmates
and explaining their behavior to the teacher. Unfortunately her insights are
not appreciated by her teacher. The chapter also shows the relationship that
exists between Scout and Jem and how she turns to him for comfort.
Scout learns several lessons that Atticus says will help her "get along better
with all kinds of folk." He tells her that she has to learn to think of how
another person feels in order to relate to them better. .
The low station that blacks hold in the town is illustrated when the people
simply assume that it was a black man that trespassed on Mr. Radley's property
and don't bother to find out the facts. This foreshadows the behavior of the
townspeople at Tom's trial.