Below, you’ll find a full summary of the main events in Part One of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, from when we first meet Scout and Jem as young children up to Part Two, when Jem turns twelve years old. It’s useful for anyone studying the text at any level (high school / GCSE / IGCSE, A-Level / College, and above)
Before you can properly understand and write essays about any novel, you should always read a summary to remind yourself of the key events and the order that they come in.
SUMMARY: PART ONE
- The narrator Jean Louise Finch (Scout) explains that her older brother Jem got a broken arm, then tells us a brief family history – Her ancestor Simon Finch came to Alabama from England; he was a fur trader and apothecary who was running away from religious persecution for his beliefs. He created a farm — Finch’s Landing — on the Alabama River. Atticus, Scout’s father, was among the first generation to break away from the farm as a profession, he studied law and became a lawyer in the nearby town of Maycomb; his brother Jack studied medicine and their sister Alexandra stayed to tend the farm.
- Maycomb is a small town suffering from the Great Depression. Atticus lives there with his two children (Scout and Jem), and Calpurnia, their African American cook. The children’s mother died when Scout was young, but Jem remembers her.
- In the summer of 1933, the children meet Charles Baker Harris — ‘Dill’. He is small but very intelligent and friendly, and they soon become good friends; Dill stays in Maycomb every summer with his aunt Miss Rachel Haverford.
- The character of ‘Boo Radley’, and the other Radley family members, are introduced. They keep to themselves and don’t go to church, so a lot of mystery surrounds their circumstances. Boo is said to be crazy, he is kept in the house by his father and not allowed out. Dill dares Jem to sneak up to Radley Place (the Radley’s house).
- It is September; Dill goes back to his hometown of Meridian. Scout gets ready to go to school, but it is not as she hoped.
- Miss Caroline, her teacher, becomes angry when she realizes that she has already been taught to read, and so she asks Scout to tell Atticus that he must stop educating her — she thinks that only schools should be a place of education.
- Walter Cunningham, a poor boy in Scout’s class whose family has been hit terribly by the Great Depression, has no money for lunch. Miss Caroline offers to lend him some, but he refuses as he knows he’ll not be able to pay it back. Scout tries to explain this, but Miss Caroline becomes angry and punishes her.
- Scout rubs Walter’s nose in dirt to play roughly with him, but Jem tells her off and invites Walter to ‘dinner’ (lunch), as he and Scout go home for their lunch each day. Scout is shocked when Walter pours syrup all over his vegetables, but Calpurnia scolds her, saying he’s a guest in their house and that she should respect him.
- At school, Miss Caroline is scared by a ‘cootie’ — a bug — in Burris Ewell’s hair. She gets into an altercation with him, and he upsets and threatens her. The children try to explain that the Ewell family only come to school once a year and then leave and that they are a mean group that it’s best to avoid. Miss Caroline tells Burris to leave, and he makes her cry.
- Scout has a talk with Atticus and asks if she can skip school and learn at home, he tells her she needs to keep going.
- Scout is bored at school for the rest of the year, she passes by the Radley Place and finds an oak tree with a hole in it — inside, there are two pieces of gum. She takes them out and chews them; Jem is horrified. They go back on the last day of school and find two Indian head pennies (an old type of currency) in the trunk.
- Summer returns and so does Dill, the three friends start playing a game where they roll around in a tire, and they invent a game called ‘Boo Radley’, where they act out different Radley family members — including exploring the gossip and rumors of the Radley family. Atticus finds them and is annoyed, Jem worries that it may no longer be safe to play the game.
- Jem and Dill become closer friends and Scout feels left out. She develops an interest in Miss Maudie Atkinson, a widowed neighbor who introduces her to domestic pastimes, such as gardening and baking. Boo Radley’s father has now died, but Miss Maudie tells Scout that Boo is still alive — she says his father was too religious and strict (a Baptist), and that Boo was always a nice boy as a child.
- Jem and Dill plan to invite Boo out for ice cream, but Atticus catches them and tells them off.
- On Dill’s last day before he returns home, he, Jem, and Scout sneak up to the Radley Place and peer through the window — they see a silhouette of a man in a hat, and they run, hearing a gunshot behind them as they flee. Jem’s pants get caught on the fence between the Radley Place and their school as they’re escaping.
- When they get back home, a lot of people from the town are there. Miss Maudie says that Boo Radley ‘shot a Negro’ (a black man) in his yard. Miss Stephanie says he is still waiting in his yard with a gun, ready to shoot. Atticus asks where Jem’s pants are, and Dill says he won them in a game. At night, Jem sneaks back to the fence to get them.
- Jem says the pants were mended and hung on the fence. They also find a small ball of grey twine in the oak tree hole and decide to take it after a few days.
- Scout is still unhappy in second grade, and in the Autumn (Fall) they find another present in the tree — carved figures that look like themselves. Later they also find chewing gum, a spelling bee medal, and a watch. The next day, the hole is filled with cement and Jem asks Mr. Radley (Nathan, Boo’s brother) about it — he says it was filled because the tree is dying.
- It is winter, and snow falls lightly on the town for the first time in years. Jem and Scout work hard collecting snow to build a snowman — there’s not enough for a full man, so they build a small dirt figure and cover it with snow; it looks like Mr Avery (a nasty neighbour of theirs). They disguise it a little so it’s less obvious with Miss Maudie’s hat and hedge clippers.
- In the middle of the night, Atticus wakes Scout because Miss Maudie’s house is on fire. They help to save furniture, but the house is destroyed. Someone puts a blanket on Scout, and they later realise it was Boo Radley. Jem tells Atticus about the tree hole and his pants, Scout feels sick and Atticus says to not tell anybody about it. Miss Maudie is feeling positive about rebuilding the house and planning a garden.
- Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman — he doesn’t expect to win but morally feels he must defend Tom anyway. At school, a classmate of Scout’s called Cecil Jacobs tells the class that ‘Scout Finch’s daddy defends niggers’; Scout is enraged. Atticus tells her to ‘hold your head high, and keep those fists down’, teaching her that some battles should not be fought or won through violence.
- Uncle Jack, Atticus’ brother, comes to stay. Scout curses in front of him and Jack warns her never to do that. At Christmas the family go to Finch’s Landing to see Alexandra, Atticus’ sister who still runs the farm there. Alexandra tries to get Scout to dress like a ‘lady’, which she hates.
- Francis, Alexandra’s grandson, is very ‘boring’ to Scout but he also has a mean streak: he teases Scout and calls Atticus a ‘nigger-lover’, so she attacks him. He then tells Alexandra that Scout hit him and Uncle Jack spanks her, but later in Maycomb she tells him the truth and he’s furious, although he agrees not to cause a fuss because he promised Atticus not to react to anything that’s said about him.
- Scout and Jem start the chapter remarking how ‘feeble’ Atticus is (he’s almost fifty and much older than other kids’ fathers). He reads, whereas others go fishing and hunting. A mad dog comes to town, and Atticus shoots the dog with ‘one shot’, impressing the children and causing them to reconsider their judgement of him.
- Mrs Dubose, an old woman in a wheelchair, also makes a nasty comment about the Tom Robinson trial. Atticus expects Jem to respect her because of her age, but one day she says that Atticus works for ‘niggers and trash’ and that he is as bad as his clients. Jem attacks her camellia plants and is punished by Atticus, who makes her go to Mrs Dubose’s house and read to her for a month — it’s a painful experience. Mrs Dubose dies soon after Jem stops reading to her and leaves him a present — a white camellia flower. Atticus tells the children that she was addicted to morphine and that the reading helped her fight against it.
Thanks for reading! If you find the summary useful, take a look at our full ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ course, as well as other English Language / Literature lessons.