To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Chapters 28–31

Summary Chapters 28–31

“When they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . .”

“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

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Analysis: Chapters 28–31

Lee fills the night of the pageant with elements of foreshadowing, from the sense of foreboding that grips Aunt Alexandra just before Jem and Scout leave the house, to the ominous, pitch-dark night to Cecil Jacobs’s attempt to scare them. The pageant itself is an amusing depiction of small-town pride, as the lady in charge spends thirty minutes describing the exploits of Colonel Maycomb, the town’s founder, to the audience. Additionally, the reader can visualize the comical parade of meats and vegetables crossing the stage, with Scout, just awake, hurrying after them as the audience roars with laughter. In this way, as with the early snowfall, the fire, and the mad dog, the night of the pageant incorporates both the Gothic motif of the novel and the motif of small-town life that counterbalances it.

A mood of mounting suspense marks Jem and Scout’s walk home. They hear the noise of their pursuer and assume it to be Cecil Jacobs, only to realize relatively quickly that they are in mortal danger. The attack is all the more terrifying because Jem and Scout are vulnerable: they are very near their home, in an area that they assume to be safe, and Scout, in her awkward costume, has no idea what is happening. Though Lee has spent a great deal of time foreshadowing Ewell’s impending attack on the Finches, she manages to make the scene of the attack surprising. All of the clues in the novel to this point have suggested that Ewell would attack Atticus, not the children. But, as we realize in this scene, the cowardly Ewell would never have the courage to attack the best shot in Maycomb County; his insidious, malicious attack on the children reveals how loathsome a man he is. In this way, Lee’s diversionary technique of leading the reader to suspect that Atticus would be Ewell’s victim makes this scene simultaneously startling for the reader and revealing of character.

Boo Radley’s entrance takes place in the thick of the scuffle, and Scout does not realize that her reclusive neighbor has saved them until she has reached home; even then, she assumes him to be “some countryman.” This failure of recognition symbolizes the inability of Scout and the other children, throughout the novel, to see Boo as a human being, treating him instead as merely a source of childhood ghost stories. As his name suggests, Boo is a sort of ghost, but this condition has less to do with his appearance out of nowhere on Halloween than with Scout’s hollow understanding of him. When Scout finally realizes who has saved her, however, Boo the childhood phantom becomes Boo the human being: “His lips parted into a timid smile, and our neighbor’s image blurred with my sudden tears. ‘Hey, Boo,’ I said.” With this sentence, Scout takes the first of two large steps in this section toward completing the development of her character and assuming the grown-up moral perspective that Atticus has shown her throughout the book.

Heck Tate’s decision to spare Boo the horror of publicity by saying that Bob Ewell fell on his knife invokes the title of the book and its central theme one last time, as Scout says that exposing Boo to the public eye would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.” She has appropriated not only Atticus’s words but also his outlook, as she suddenly sees the world through Boo’s eyes. In this moment of understanding and sympathy, Scout takes her second great step toward a grown-up moral perspective. The reader gets the sense that all of Scout’s previous experiences have led her to this enriching moment and that Scout will be able to grow up without having her experience of evil destroy her faith in goodness. Not only has Boo become a real person to her, but in saving the children’s lives he has also provided concrete proof that goodness exists in powerful and unexpected forms, just as evil does.

Despite Scout’s obvious maturation in Chapter 31, the novel closes with her falling asleep as Atticus reads to her. This enduring image of her as Atticus’s baby child is fitting—while she has grown up quite a bit over the course of the novel, she is still, after all, only eight years old. Just as her ham costume, a symbol of the silly and carefree nature of childhood, prevents Bob Ewell’s knife from injuring her, so does the timely intervention of Boo, another part of Scout’s childhood, thwart the total intrusion into her life of the often hate-filled adult world that Ewell represents. Interestingly, the book makes no return to the adult Scout for closing narration, and Lee offers the reader no details of Scout’s future except that she never sees Boo again. Rather, she leaves Scout and the reader with a powerful feeling of cautious optimism—an acknowledgment that the existence of evil is balanced by faith in the essential goodness of humankind.