To Kill a Mockingbird | Study Guide

Harper Lee

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Plot Summary

Professor Bradley Greenburg from Northeastern Illinois University provides in-depth analysis of the plot in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


To Kill a Mockingbird takes place between 1933 and 1935 in Maycomb, a fictitious small town in Alabama. Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, is the inquisitive and imaginative tomboy daughter of lawyer Atticus Finch. Although narrator Scout is grown, she tells her story through the eyes of her six-year-old self.

Scout's narration begins with an intimate view of her family. She introduces her father, Atticus, a widower who is raising his children with the help of Calpurnia, the family cook. Although an employee, Calpurnia is treated as a member of the family and a sort of surrogate mother to the kids.

As the story progresses Scout introduces the residents of Maycomb. She and Jem soon meet Dill, the small, white-haired, six-year-old nephew of Miss Rachel Haverford, the Finch's next-door neighbor.

While Scout is initially apprehensive of Dill, Jem accepts him into their group after discovering he's seen the movie Dracula. Dill soon grows bored of putting on plays with Jem and Scout and becomes fascinated with the sensational stories about Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbor who, according to Jem, "dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch." Dill's fascination soon grows into obsession as he plots to lure Boo outside with help from Jem and Scout.

Summer ends and Dill is sent back home to Mississippi. Scout is looking forward to her first day of school. At this point Scout's classmates are introduced—a unique group of characters who set the tone for the social division seen throughout the rest of the book.

One day while Scout is walking home from school, she sees something shiny in the knothole of an oak tree in front of the Radley house. This turns out to be two sticks of gum in tinfoil wrappers. Who left them is a mystery, but when she and Jem subsequently find more treasures left in the tree it becomes apparent that the gifts are meant for them, and they suspect that Boo Radley is the gift giver.

Jem and Scout's lives become more complicated when Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the 19-year-old daughter of Bob Ewell. Although many of Maycomb's more enlightened residents are certain of Tom Robinson's innocence, the community's pervasive racism means that Tom has little chance of a fair trial. Despite knowing he cannot win the trial—a matter his children don't understand—Atticus knows he must nonetheless defend Tom.

During the trial it becomes apparent that Mayella's father is the true criminal, having physically and sexually abused her. Ewell is enraged that Atticus has directed the community's attention toward him, and even though Tom is convicted Ewell publicly threatens Atticus. When Tom Robinson is killed trying to escape from prison Ewell says, "one down and about two more to go," referring to his plan to kill Scout and Jem.

The two plots converge when Ewell finally makes his move. Drunk and angry, he stalks Jem and Scout one evening as they make their way home after a school play. Still in costume as a ham, Scout is defenseless when she and Jem are attacked by an assailant in the dark cover of the trees just outside the Radley house. After the scuffle escalates she hears Jem cry out in pain. That's when she sees a silhouette of a second man—not the attacker—carrying Jem toward the Finch home.

Sheriff Tate discovers Bob Ewell dead from a stab wound where the attack occurred. Although it is clear that Boo Radley is the mysterious figure who saved Jem and Scout, Atticus and Sheriff Tate cover for Radley by saying Ewell fell on his own knife. Boo stays with the Finches that evening until he knows Jem is safe from harm. He then asks Scout to walk him home, and she does, her hand resting gently on his arm like a lady escorted by a gentlemen. When Boo enters the Radley house and closes the door, that is the last she sees of him, but the lessons that he, Tom Robinson, and Atticus have taught her will resound across her lifetime.

To Kill a Mockingbird Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Dill arrives; characters, relationships are introduced.

Rising Action

2 Gifts begin appearing in the knot-hole.

3 Nathan Radley shoots at the Finch kids.

4 Miss Maudie's house burns down.

5 Atticus shoots Tim Johnson.

6 Aunt Alexandra moves in.

7 The lynch mob confronts Atticus outside the prison.

8 At Tom's trial, characters give their testimonies.


9 Tom Robinson is found guilty.

Falling Action

10 Tom is shot trying to escape prison.

11 Bob Ewell attacks the Finch children.


12 Scout finally meets Boo Radley.

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