To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about Atticus, a lawyer, and his children, Jem and Scout, living in Alabama. Jem and Scout are infatuated with a spooky neighbor, "Boo" Radley, Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Tom is found guilty by a racist jury and is killed while trying to escape from prison. Bob Ewell, the winner of the case, attacks Jem and Scout to exact revenge but Boo saves them and kills Bob.
Scout, the narrator of the story, begins Chapter 1 with a brief but comprehensive background of her family, the Finches. Their progenitor Simon Finch immigrated to America from England in order to avoid religious persecution. He arrived in Philadelphia and eventually migrated to Alabama where he began a career practicing medicine. He later stopped practicing medicine in order to establish his homestead Finch's Landing in Maycomb, Alabama which was all that was left to his twentieth-century descendants after the Civil War. Atticus Finch is Scout's father. He practices law for Maycomb County. His younger brother John Hale Finch practices medicine and his younger sister Alexandra remained on Finch's Landing. Scout and her brother Jem meet a young boy nicknamed Dill who is now spending summers with his aunt and their neighbor Miss Rachel Haverford. The children spend this first summer together acting out action adventure stories and begin the mission to coax the county phantom Boo Radley from his house.
The narrator Scout begins retelling the story of how her brother Jem's left arm was broken when he was nearly thirteen. The arm was broken so badly that Jem believed he would never play football again; however, when the arm healed his fears dissipated despite the funny angle and shape it took on as a result of the break. Jem claims that the events leading up to his broken arm began the summer their friend Dill came to visit. Scout believes that it was the Ewells who started it all. She then goes on to say that a broader view will bring them back to the era of Andrew Jackson when he was a general. General Jackson's campaign against the Creek Indians forced Simon Finch, Jem's and Scout's ancestor, to migrate to Alabama. Simon Finch, a fur-trapper and apothecary, was born in England but left for America when the persecution of Methodists began. He wound his way to Maycomb, Alabama through Philadelphia. Simon made much of his money practicing medicine but stopped given the material temptations presented by making so much money. He purchased three slaves and established a homestead called Finch's Landing along the Alabama River. Only after establishing the homestead did Simon marry and start a family.
Finch's Landing was largely self-sufficient by producing nearly everything required to live except for ice, wheat flour, and clothing. Unfortunately, the Civil War stripped the Finch descendants of everything except the land on which they lived well into the twentieth century. Scout's father Atticus Finch and his younger brother John Hale both left the Landing to study, respectively, law and medicine. Their sister Alexandra remained on the landing and married a man who spent most of his time lying in a hammock by the river. Atticus returned to Maycomb after passing the bar exam. His first two clients the Haverfords were also the last two men hanged in Maycomb for first degree murder. Atticus attempted to convince them to plead guilty to second degree murder so that they could avoid the death penalty; however, they insisted on pleading not guilty to first degree murder thus resulting in their execution. Atticus developed a strong distaste for practicing criminal law after the Haverford incident and from that point onward invested in his brother's education.
Atticus, Jem, Scout and their cook Calpurnia lived on the main residential street in Maycomb. Atticus' wife died from a heart attack when the narrator was two and Atticus never remarried. Scout has no memory of her but Jem's memory of his mother often depresses him. The summer of their sixth and tenth birthdays, Scout and Jem meet Dill in their neighbor Miss Rachel Haverford's collard patch. Dill, whose real name is Charles Baker Harris, is the nephew of Miss Rachel from Meridian Mississippi and he has begun his summer stays with his aunt. Jem and Scout learn that Dill's photographer mother entered his photograph in a Beautiful Child contest which won five dollars on which he saw Dracula twenty times. After Dill role plays the entire film for Jem and the narrator, Scout asks him about his father. Dill doesn't offer much information about his father except that he is still alive. Dill, Jem, and Scout spend the rest of the summer staging dramas based on various action adventure stories. When they exhaust their repertoire, Dill suggests that they make the town phantom Boo Radley come out of his house. He dares Jem to just touch the Radley house and bets him a copy of The Grey Ghost that he won't make it past the Radley gate. He then agrees to swap Jem the book if he touches the side of the house which Jem does. The children are fascinated by Boo Radley because he never leaves his house and has not been seen by anyone in the town for many years. People claim that he only comes out at night to commit small crimes in Maycomb. For example, Boo Radley was blamed for a rash of mutilated chickens; however, Crazy Addie was responsible. Anything on the Radley property is considered dangerous to eat or touch.
The myth surrounding the Radley home began years before Jem and the narrator were born. When Boo Radley was younger, he kept company with some of the Cunninghams from Old Sarum. They were the closest thing to a gang the area had seen. One night the group committed a traffic violation, resisted arrest, and locked the sheriff the county courthouse. Eventually the boys were brought before the probate judge who sentenced them to the state industrial school. Mr. Radley requested that his son be released into his custody and the judge complied. Upon his son's return home, the Radley's closed their house for the following fifteen years. The only story heard from the house was the incident involving Boo Radley at the age of thirty-three stabbing his father in the leg with a pair of scissors. The sheriff did not wish to lock Boo in the same cell as black men so he was kept in the courthouse basement for several days before the town made Mr. Radley bring him home. The only other time the house was opened following the scissor incident was the death of Mr. Radley. The county coroner came to remove his body from the house.
Chapter 1 begins where the novel ends with a thirteen years old Jem recovering from a severely arm. However, Scout is retelling the story as an adult recounting her childhood to the reader. Interestingly, though, Lee alternates between Scout's narrative voice as a child and her narrative voice as an adult. Doing so presents the reader with a dual perspective that is important to the overall reading of the text. As a child retelling her story, Scout is more reliable due to her innocence. A child is more likely to recount events as they occurred rather than as suits their memory. Yet, as an adult, Scout is able to provide a mature interpretation of the same events that she couldn't have fully understood as a child. This facilitates a bi-level reading for the reader who may not be familiar with early-mid twentieth century southern American culture.
Scout becomes the reader's tour guide through Maycomb and the eclectic cast of characters that inhabit the town. Her description of the Finch family origins may seem pedantic at first, but it provides important clues to understanding the story as the narrative progresses. The reader will not only understand relationships within the Finch family, but also the relationships the Finches have with their fellow townsmen. For example, Atticus Finch studied law in Alabama and then returned to Maycomb as soon as he passed the bar exam. Therefore, Atticus becomes a archetypal southern patriarch: trustworthy, respectable, and loyal to his origins. This last attribute is crucial to the rest of the story in that his loyalty allows him to overlook the character flaws of those around him to which Scout calls subtle attention.
Interspersed with Scout's characterizations are descriptions of Maycomb as a town. She first describes its general character: 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 courthouse sagged in the square (5). Lee is using the physical description of Maycomb to define the undertones of its culture. Maycomb was literally old in that it was settled prior to the Civil War; however, by adding the descriptor tired, Lee is implying that the town's people have not reconciled themselves to the changing of eras. Rituals such as [l]adies bath[ing] before noon, after their three o'clock naps were still practiced despite the time being well into the twentieth century. Also, as the reader learns in the section discussing Boo Radley, racial attitudes have not changed with the times. This demonstrated by the town sheriff not having the heart to put him alongside Negroes(12) when Boo stabbed his father in the led with a pair of scissors.
Following Scout's description of the initial setting is a more specific description of the town's people. [They] moved slowly then. They took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours but seemed longer. There was 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. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had noting to fear but fear itself(6). To emphasize the implication of the previous passage, Lee is blatantly stating that the inhabitants in Maycomb have willingly stayed behind the times due to a stubborn refusal to recover from the depression most of the south was thrust into after the Civil War. This refusal springs from an unfounded optimism that they can recover an era that has long since passed.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to introducing the characters who play significant roles in the narrative such as Charles Baker Harris who is nicknamed Dill. He helps mark Scout's and Jem's maturation with his annual summer visits; Calpurnia who has taken on the role of the mother-figure for Scout and Jem but under the guise of the archetypal mammy; Aunt Alexandra, Scouts nemesis who epitomizes the arrested development of Maycomb County; and Boo Radley who provides comic relief as the mythical yet real preoccupation of Scout's and Jem's childhood. There is a brief mention of other characters, specifically the Ewells who are not formerly introduced until much later in the novel; however, they too play a crucial role in the development of the story.