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To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • Atticus Finch, a widowed lawyer in Depression-era Alabama, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his children against prejudice.

  • Small-town Alabama, 1932. Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck) is a lawyer and a widower. He has two young children, Jem and Scout. Atticus Finch is currently defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Meanwhile, Jem and Scout are intrigued by their neighbours, the Radleys, and the mysterious, seldom-seen Boo Radley in particular.

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  • Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, and with America struggling to find its feet, the widowed father and fiercely principled lawyer, Atticus Finch, is left all alone to care for his two children: Jem and Scout. When the young black worker, Tom Robinson, is wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting Mayella Ewell, a white woman living in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, Atticus decides to take his case and defend him in court, turning his fellow townspeople against him. Suddenly, Atticus and his young children find themselves targeted by the local community, which seems unable to forgive and forget. But, this is a matter of justice and not the colour of one's skin. Will impartiality and reason prevail?

  • Atticus Finch is an idealistic lawyer in the fictional town of Maycomb, a racially divided Alabama town, set in the early 1930s. Finch agrees to defend a young black man who is accused of raping a white woman. Many of the townspeople try to get Atticus to pull out of the trial, but he decides to go ahead. As one begins observing the reasons that make his defense far from easy, it becomes evident the reason lies in that no one in this town seems willing to believe in the innocence of an accused Negro. How will the trial turn out - and will it effect any changes in racial attitudes in Maycomb?

  • Through the eyes of "Scout," a feisty six-year-old tomboy, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD carries us on an odyssey through the fires of prejudice and injustice in 1932 Maycomb, Alabama. Peopled with a cast of eccentrics, the tired and sleepy town finds itself as the venue of the trial of Tom Robinson, a young black man falsely accused of raping an ignorant white woman. Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem's widowed father and deeply principled man, is appointed to defend Tom for whom a guilty verdict from an all-white jury is a foregone conclusion.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • The titles appear as a young child babbles while picking through childhood mementos found in a cigar box.

    An adult woman is recalling formative events of her childhood in the small Alabama town of Macomb, that was "a tired old town even in 1932" when she "first knew it." They had recently been told they "had nothing to fear but fear itself," which refers to FDR's inaugural address of March 1933. She was six years old that summer.

    Jean Louise "Scout" Finch (Mary Badham), wearing bib overalls and her hair in bangs, greets Walter Cunningham, a farmer who is dropping off some hickory nuts. She summons her father Atticus (Gregory Peck) to thank him. When Mr. Cunningham leaves, Atticus explains that he is embarrassed to have to pay for "some legal work" in this way.

    Their cook Calpurnia (Estelle Evans) wants Scout's older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) to come in for breakfast, but he is sulking in his treehouse because Atticus says he is "too old to play football for the Methodists." Miss Maudie (Rosemary Murphy) across the street assures them that he is respected as a very skilled lawyer.

    In the collard patch of their neighbor they discover a boy a little older than Scout. He is Dill (John Mosna), staying with his Aunt Stephanie for the summer. They tell him about the neighbor two houses away they have never seen. Jem describes him as a homicidal maniac of frightening appearance. Dill's Aunt Stephanie (Alice Ghostly) adds to the story.

    At 5:00 o'clock they walk to meet Atticus, returning home, and pass by elderly Mrs. Dubose, who rails at them from her porch. Atticus handles her with his customary grace and sensitivity.

    That evening, Atticus listens to Scout read aloud. When she asks about Boo Radley, Atticus reminds her that he has told them "to leave those poor people alone." They reminisce about her mother, who died when Scout was two and Jem was six. Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) comes to ask Atticus to defend in a problematic case involving a man named Tom Robinson. He is relieved and grateful when Atticus agrees to.

    The next day, Dill dares Jem to go up to the Radley's porch. Jem can't avoid it when Scout, rolling in a loose tire, ends up at the foot of their steps. Dill suggests they all go to the courthouse to see where Boo Radley had been locked up. They end up looking in to the preliminary hearing concerning Tom Robinson. Tom is a black man who has been accused of raping and beating a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the girl's father, confronts Atticus in the hallway. He tells Atticus he is concerned that "people are saying you believed Tom Robinson's story agin ourn." He becomes quite hostile, but Atticus remains calm, and cold.

    At night, Dill prompts Jem to look in a back window of the Radley house. The shadow of a man in a baggy shirt looms over Jem, and the shadow of his hand reaches out to touch Jem. When Jem cowers in fright, the man quietly withdraws. The children flee. Jem's overalls get caught in the chickenwire fence, and he has to leave them. Dill is called home, and he says, "See you next summer." When Jem goes back to get his pants, Scout hears a gunshot, but Jem returns safely. They go around to the street to find the neighbors in an uproar because Mr. Radley had fired to frighten "a prowler." Atticus calmly says the excitement is over.

    On her first day of school, Scout feels very awkward wearing a dress. She has a rough first day, and gets in a fight with young Walter Cunningham, Jr. Jem breaks up the fight and invites Walter to have lunch at their house. Jem learns that Walter has his own gun, and hunts rabbits and squirrels with his dad for food. Atticus tells of getting his first gun, when his father told him it was "sin to shoot a mockingbird," because it does no harm, but only sings. Scout is appalled when Walter drowns his plate in syrup, but Calpurnia gives her a lecture on hospitality. That evening, when she complains about school, Atticus teaches her about empathy and compromise.

    Jem spots a rabid dog wandering down their street, approaching their house. Calpurnia takes the children inside and calls Atticus, who shows up with the local sheriff, Heck Tate (Frank Overton). Tate has a hunting rifle but doesn't believe he can make the shot. He asks Atticus to shoot the dog; Atticus is reluctant but takes up the rifle when Tate insists. After removing his glasses, Atticus shoots the dog dead with one shot, much to the astonishment of Jem. Tate starts to tell Jem and Scout that Atticus is the best shot in the county but Atticus stops him and leaves with the sheriff.

    Both children ask to go with Atticus when he visits Tom Robinson's wife, Helen. Waiting in the car, Scout falls asleep, but Jem is frightened when drunken Bob Ewell lurches against the window, and calls Atticus "nigger lover." Atticus reassures Jem, "He's all bluff," and says that he wished he could keep the ugly things in this world away from them, but knows that is not possible. When he drives Calpurnia home, Jem waits nervously, listening to the spooky night sounds.

    Scout continues to have fights at school, because people denigrate Atticus for defending a Negro. He explains that he has to defend Tom Robinson, or he could not hold his head up in town. He tells her she must not fight, no matter what people say.

    In a hole in a tree in front of the Radley's, the children find two carved figures that look just like them. Mr. Radley appears and cements up the hole. That night, Jem shows Scout a cigar box filled with all sorts of little gifts that he had found in the tree. He tells her how the night he went back to get his "britches" he had found them "folded across the fence."

    When summer comes, Dill returns, and Tom Robinson's trial is due to start soon. He has spent the year in the Abbotsville jail, because the Sheriff thought he would be safer there. Now he is back at the town jail, and Heck Tate expects trouble. Atticus takes a reading light, and leaves. Jem wants to check on him, and he and Scout and Dill walk downtown. Atticus is reading in a chair on the jail porch. Suddenly, numerous cars arrive, and men with rifles approach. The children push their way forward. Jem refuses when Atticus tells them to go home. There is an impasse, until Scout recognizes Mr. Cunningham, and politely and in and empathetic tone, speaks to him about the legal work Atticus is doing for him. Something in Scout's tone makes Cunningham look ashamed and he gets the mob to leave with him.

    Next morning, crowds arrive to attend the trial, and the children go down to the courthouse. They are able to find a place with Rev. Sykes (Bill Walker) in the gallery, with all the black people who have turned out for the trial.

    In the Sheriff's testimony Atticus establishes that Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox) was badly beaten on the right side of her face and had finger marks all around her neck.

    Bob Ewell testifies that he returned from one of his fields to hear Mayella screaming, and that he saw who did it. Ewell gets up to leave and Atticus has to tell him to remain for his questions. He asks why no doctor was called, and gets Ewell to write his name. The judge points out that this shows he is left handed. Ewell feels tricked.

    Mayella testifies that she asked Tom to "bust up" a chifforobe (a piece of furniture like a wardrobe) in the yard, and that when she went in to get him a nickel he followed her and attacked her. Atticus asks her if her father got riled when he drank, and asks if he had ever beaten her. Mayella is extremely uncomfortable, and her testimony is inconsistent. When Tom (Brock Peters) stands to be identified, Atticus asks him to catch a small drinking glass he tosses to him. Atticus tells Tom to try catching it with his left hand, to which Tom replies he can't; his left arm is crippled because he caught in a cotton gin when he was twelve. When he asks Mayella how Tom could have done what she claims, she breaks down and rails at Atticus and the jury, saying she wants the man guilty of beating her punished. She then refuses to say anymore and is taken back to her father.

    The prosecutor rests, and Atticus calls Tom Robinson to the stand. Tom is dignified and articulate, but increasingly uncomfortable. He testifies that he busted up a chifforobe for Mayella "way last spring . . . way over a year ago," and refused the nickel she offered. After that he did lots of favors that she asked him to do, until one day she got him in the house and grabbed him and told him to kiss her. Bob Ewell "cussed at her from the window" and said he "was gonna kill her."

    In cross examination, the prosecutor (William Windom) gets Tom to admit he is "strong enough to choke the breath out of a woman and sling her to the floor." He scoffs at Tom's helpfulness and says: "You felt sorry for her? A white woman?"

    After the prosecutor has spoken his closing argument, Atticus is allowed to give his. Atticus points out the lack of evidence, the fact that no doctor examined Mayella and that Mayella was beaten by someone left handed. He says that he has pity for Mayella, "a victim of cruel poverty and ignorance," but cannot let her put a man's life at stake to cover her guilt at breaking the social code.

    In the gallery, Jem watches the proceedings, mesmerized. He asks the Reverend how long the jury has been out deciding the verdict. The Reverend tells them it's been nearly two hours when the jury returns, bringing back a verdict of guilty. The judge dismisses them and leaves, slamming his door. Atticus tells Tom that he had told Helen they would "probably lose this one."

    All the white people leave the court. The blacks in the gallery watch Atticus gather his papers. Gradually, they all stand out of respect. Rev. Sykes says, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your fathers passin'."

    Back at home, Miss Maudie tells a disconsolate Jem that his father is one of those "men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us." Sheriff Tate arrives and talks with Atticus, who then reports that Tom has been killed. A deputy had shot at him and had "missed his aim" when Tom "broke loose and ran . . . like a crazy man." He says that on appeal they would have had "more than a good chance."

    Jem insists on accompanying Atticus to go tell Tom's family. Bob Ewell arrives and spits at Atticus, who calmly wipes his face and leaves.

    In October, Scout wears a ham costume in a school pageant; she is dressed as a large ham. She wears it walking home with Jem after dark because she couldn't find her overalls after the performance was over. In a small grove they often walk through as a shortcut, they are attacked by an unseen assailant. Jem yells loudly and is thrown to the ground, unconscious. The attacker grabs Scout. Another man in a baggy shirt arrives and there is a struggle with their attacker. Scout cannot see well from inside her costume, but she hears a loud grunt and sees the man in the baggy shirt carrying Jem to their house. Scout wriggles out of her ham costume and gets home finding Jem is unconscious, with a badly broken arm. Atticus runs out of the house yelling for Scout and she runs into his arms sobbing and babbling about what happened.

    After a doctor has come to take care of Jem, Sheriff Tate investigates the scene where the kids were attacked and reports that Bob Ewell has been killed with "a kitchen knife." He asks Scout to tell him what happened. She only has limited detail but says she was saved from Ewell by a man she couldn't see very well. Just then, Scout sees the man who rescued them behind Jem's door, and realizes it is Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). He recoils slightly when Atticus gently pulls the door away from him, allowing Scout to see his face. She takes him by the hand, and invites him to "say goodnight to Jem." When he hesitates to touch Jem, she reassures him that he "can pet him," since he is asleep. Boo strokes Jem's head gently.

    Scout and Boo go out to their front porch, sitting quietly while Atticus discusses the incident with Tate. Atticus, thinking Jem wielded the knife, begins to consider a case of self defense involving Jem, when the sheriff corrects him. He says decisively: "Bob Ewell fell on his knife." He implies that Boo must have killed Bob Ewell. He says he feels Boo did a civic duty "to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed," and that to "drag him into the limelight" would be "a sin." Scout agrees-- that it would be like shooting a mockingbird.

    Atticus shakes Boo's hand, and says, "Thank you, Arthur, for my children." Scout walks Boo back to his front door.

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