Scout, the narrator, remembers the summer that her brother Jem broke his arm, and she looks back over the years to recall the incidents that led to that climactic event. Scout provides a brief introduction to the town of Maycomb, Alabama and its inhabitants, including her widowed father Atticus Finch, attorney and state legislator; Calpurnia, their "Negro" cook and housekeeper; and various neighbors.
The story starts with the first summer that Scout and Jem meet Dill, a little boy from Meridian, Mississippi who spends the summers with his aunt, the Finchs' next-door neighbor Miss Rachel Haverford.
From the children's point-of-view, their most compelling neighbor is Boo Radley, a recluse whom none of them has ever seen. Dill's fascination, in particular, leads to all sorts of games and plans to try and get Boo to come outside. Their attempts culminate in a dare to Jem, which he grudgingly takes. Jem runs into the Radleys' yard and touches the outside of the house.
This chapter sets the tone and basis for everything else that happens in the novel. Scout depicts her world as a place of absolutes. This strong foundation provides an important starting point for the story. Subsequent situations and circumstances chip away at all that the children know to be true as maturity confronts them. This maturity is foreshadowed by Jem's broken arm and the fact that the story is told in retrospect.
Novels that deal with the formation of a maturing character are called bildungsroman or coming-of-age stories. Scout as narrator is key to the novel's success. The reader has the advantage of a storyteller who can look back at a situation and see herself exactly as she was. Scout tells the story from an adult point-of-view but with a child's eye and voice, which gives the story a good deal of humor and wit. Scout's distance from the story also gives her some objectivity, although she admits that even in her objectivity, some events are questionable: "I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem . . . said it started long before that."
The sense of place established in this chapter is integral to the rest of the story. Through Scout, Lee gives the reader a feel for the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, which is loosely based on Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. In this town, the rules of society are clearly set. One's social survival depends on how well he or she follows the rules. Scout, Jem, and Dill come to question these conventions as the story progresses.
Where a person comes from — his ancestry — is important, and like many small towns, Maycomb's citizens are suspicious of outsiders. Dill is a crucial character in the story because he is both an insider and an outsider. He hails from a different state, but because he is a child and because "His family was from Maycomb originally," he is accepted readily. Throughout the story, Dill acts as an observant conscience for the town. The first example of Dill as conscience comes when he and Jem disagree about the method for making a turtle come out of its shell.
A hefty portion of the story focuses on prejudice and the relationships between African Americans and whites in the Southern United States in general, and Maycomb, specifically. This chapter makes clear that Maycomb has very different rules for blacks and whites in the town, as evidenced by the children's surprise when Calpurnia speaks ill of Boo Radley's father because "Calpurnia rarely commented on the ways of white people."
Superstition is brought to light in the children's perception of Boo Radley. Much like a mystery novel, the first chapter gives readers the idea that things may not be what they seem on the surface, as when Scout's father, Atticus, says "there were other ways of making people into ghosts."
Scout gives readers their first insights into Atticus Finch in this chapter, as well. A patient and loving, if somewhat unusual, father, Atticus acts as the voice of reason for his children, and later the entire town. The fact that he has a "profound distaste for criminal law" foreshadows the emotions he has surrounding Tom Robinson's trial later in the story.
Another major theme in the novel that is introduced in this chapter is that of defining bravery. For the children at this point in the story, bravery means nothing more than accepting a dare to touch the Radley house.
"swept yard" In some areas of the South, a swept yard was a sign of a well-kept home. A swept yard was typically kept neat and clean using straw sagebrush brooms.
flivver [Old Slang] a small, cheap automobile, esp. an old one.
beadle [Obs.] a messenger of a law court.
neighborhood scold a person, esp. a woman, who habitually uses abusive language.
Cannas any of a genus (Canna) broad-leaved tropical plants, often grown for ornament because of the striking foliage and brilliant flowers.
The Gray Ghost One in a series of pulp fiction novels written in 1926 by Robert Schulkers. These humorous mystery stories were narrated by Seckatary Hawkins, the "seckatary" of a boys' club.
Tom Swift boys' pulp fiction serial featuring famed, fictitious inventor and adventurer, Tom Swift.