In the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the middle of the Great Depression, six-year-old Scout Finch lives with her older brother, Jem, and her widowed father, Atticus. Atticus is a lawyer and makes enough to keep the family comfortably out of poverty, but he works long days. He relies on the family's black cook, Calpurnia, to help raise the kids. Scout, however, finds Calpurnia tyrannical and believes that Calpurnia favors Jem over her.
Scout and Jem spend much of their time creating and acting out fantasies. One year, a boy named Dill comes to spend the summer with his aunt, the Finches' neighbor Miss Rachel. The three children become friends, and, pushed by Dill's wild imagination, soon become obsessed with a nearby house called Radley Place. A man named Nathan Radley owns the house, but it is his reclusive brother, Arthur Radley (whom the children call Boo) who interests and terrifies them—he is supposedly locked up in the house and once stabbed his father, Mr. Radley, with scissors. Local children believe that he’s impossibly tall, drools, and eats neighborhood cats and squirrels. On a dare, Jem runs up and touches the Radley house, and Scout is sure she sees someone watching them from inside behind a curtain.
Summer ends, and Dill returns to Mississippi. Scout starts school, which she hates despite looking forward to it. On the first day, her teacher, Miss Caroline, criticizes her for already knowing how to read and forbids her from writing in cursive. When she comes home from school upset, Atticus encourages her to think about how Miss Caroline must’ve felt—she had no idea how to deal with the eccentricities of Maycomb children, just as Scout had no idea how to deal with her odd teacher. He suggests that she put herself in others’ shoes to understand how they see things. The highlights of the school year come when Scout and Jem occasionally find treasures stuffed into a knothole of a tree next to the Radleys’ fence. When they find several sticks of gum, Scout and Jem ignore the rumor that everything on the Radley property is poison.
Summer arrives and Dill returns. He, Scout, and Jem grow more daring and sneak onto the Radley property one night to look in the window, but Nathan Radley sees them and thinks they're thieves. As they run away, and Jem's pants get caught in the Radley fence. He leaves them behind and, to cover their tracks, the children show up with the rest of the neighborhood at Nathan Radley’s gate and explain that Jem is without pants because Dill won the pants in a game of strip poker, much to the horror and exasperation of the adults. When Jem goes back to Radleys’ fence to retrieve the pants later that night, he finds them mended and folded. Meanwhile, Scout and Jem continue to find gifts in the knothole until Nathan Radley cements it shut, claiming that the tree is dying. Jem is very hurt, especially when Atticus notes that the tree doesn’t look ill. A few months later, in the dead of winter, the Finch's neighbor Miss Maudie Atkinson's house catches fire, and as Scout and Finch watch it burn, someone Scout doesn't see puts a blanket around her shoulders. Jem realizes that Boo must have done it. Scout is horrified, but Atticus stifles his laughter.
That year, Atticus is appointed by the court to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a poor, notoriously vicious white man named Bob Ewell. Racial tensions in Maycomb flare. Scout and Jem become targets of abuse from schoolmates, neighbors, townspeople, and even some family members. Atticus pleads with Scout to not beat people up when they hurl insults at her about it, something that Scout struggles with greatly at Christmas. While at Finch’s Landing with Francis, a boring family member who is a year older, Francis baits Scout to fight him, ensuring that she gets in trouble with her beloved Uncle Jack. Later at home, Scout tells Uncle Jack where he went wrong: he never asked for her side of the story and punished her based on Francis’s incorrect assertion, and she begs him to keep this entire situation a secret from Atticus. On the bright side, Scout and Jem receive air rifles for Christmas, though Atticus refuses to teach them how to shoot. His only advice is that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Later in the winter, as Scout and Jem take out their new air rifles to hunt for rabbits, they discover a beloved Maycomb dog named Tim Johnson behaving strangely. Calpurnia recognizes that the dog has rabies, alerts the neighbors, and calls Atticus and the sheriff, Heck Tate. Rather than shoot the dog himself, Mr. Tate makes Atticus do it, surprising the children—they had no idea Atticus even knew how to shoot a gun, but Miss Maudie says he used to be the best shot in the county.
In the spring, Scout and Jem begin going further down the road to meet Atticus after work, which takes them past the house of Mrs. Dubose, a horrendous woman. Jem is able to ignore her abuse for a while, until one day when she hurls slurs and insults at him about Atticus defending Tom Robinson. Jem retaliates by cutting the tops off of her beloved camellia bushes. To make up for this, Mrs. Dubose asks Jem to read to her every day after school for a month, and Atticus insists he has to follow through. Mrs. Dubose is thoroughly nasty the entire time and frightens both Jem and Scout, as she has fits of some sort. Atticus forces Jem to read for an extra week and a month after he finishes, Mrs. Dubose dies. Atticus explains that Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict and used Jem’s daily reading to break herself of her addiction before she died—she wanted to die free. Atticus admits that he made Jem read because he wanted Jem to see that courage isn’t a man with a gun—it’s doing something you know is right, even if you know you’ll fail.
Calpurnia takes the children to attend her black church one Sunday when Atticus is gone and they are, for the most part, warmly received. Scout in particular is shocked to discover that Calpurnia lives a double life, as she speaks one way in the Finch home and another way among her black peers. When they return home, Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, is there to stay with them for “a while”—which in Maycomb, could mean any length of time—to provide a “feminine influence” for Scout. Scout is skeptical and takes major offense to Aunt Alexandra, especially when she forbids Scout from visiting Calpurnia’s home. Aunt Alexandra's social views are, in general, more conservative than Atticus's. She treats Calpurnia more like a servant than a family member and tries to impress upon the children that the Finches are a “Fine Family” because they’ve been on the same land for generations. Jem notes that, per this logic, the Ewell family is also made up of “Fine Folks.” On the day that Aunt Alexandra forbids Scout from visiting Calpurnia, Scout discovers Dill hiding under her bed after running away from his mother and her new husband. Jem breaks their code by telling Atticus, though Dill’s mother and Miss Rachel allow Dill to stay in Maycomb. That night, Dill admits that he was lonely and suggests that Boo Radley must also be lonely—but Boo hasn’t run away because, possibly, he has nowhere to go.
The weekend before Tom Robinson’s trial, Scout, Jem, and Dill observe tensions in Maycomb rising. Groups of men congregate on the Finches’ lawn, something that, in Scout’s experience, only happens when someone dies or when people want to discuss politics. The day before the trial, a mob surrounds the jail where Tom is being held. Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak out of the house to figure out where Atticus went and join Atticus at the courthouse, who anticipated a mob attack on Tom. Scout doesn't realize what's going on and is scared and uncomfortable when she finds herself in the middle of a group of men she doesn’t know, especially when she realizes that Atticus is scared. She recognizes a man named Mr. Cunningham in the crowd and asks him about his son, Walter, who is Scout's classmate. The man, shamed, disperses the mob. The next morning, this event transforms into a wild story of bravery that delights Dill and annoys Aunt Alexandra.
At the trial, Atticus presents a powerful defense of Tom and makes it clear that both Mayella and Mr. Ewell are lying, since Tom doesn’t have the use of his left arm and couldn’t have choked and beaten a woman, and Mayella’s injuries indicate that whoever beat her was left-handed. Rather, Atticus suggests that Mr. Ewell, who is left-handed, beat Mayella himself when he caught Mayella touching Tom. Tom saw running as his only option, even if it made him look guilty. Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak into the trial and watch the proceedings from the balcony, where the black people are forced to sit. While the prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Gilmer, questions Tom, Dill has to leave. He’s extremely upset by the racist way that Mr. Gilmer spoke to Tom. Outside, they meet Mr. Raymond, a white man who chooses to live with black people. He notes that Dill can only experience this kind of a reaction because he’s a child, whereas adults learn to ignore their innate sense of right and wrong. Jem is sure Atticus will win the case, but the all-white jury convicts Tom as guilty of rape. Jem is particularly devastated by the verdict, and his faith in justice is even further shaken when Tom tries to escape from prison and is shot and killed.
Even though Robinson was convicted, Ewell is furious that Atticus made him look like a fool in court. He harasses Helen Robinson, Tom’s window, and even tries to break into Judge Taylor’s house. Atticus isn’t concerned, however—he believes that Mr. Ewell got everything out of his system when he spit in Atticus’s face the week after the trial. However, as Jem and Scout walk home alone from a Halloween pageant one night, Mr. Ewell attacks them. Scout can’t see much of what happens, but hears Jem’s arm break before someone rushes in to help. In the scuffle, Mr. Ewell is stabbed to death. The man who saved Jem and Scout carries Jem home, and once inside, Scout realizes that the man is Boo Radley. Mr. Tate decides to keep Boo's involvement in Mr. Ewell's death quiet, which Scout understands—she suggests to Atticus that punishing him would be like killing a mockingbird. Scout leads Boo to say goodnight to Jem, who’s unconscious, and then walks Boo home. As Scout stands on the Radley porch, she sees the world as Boo must see it and looks back on the experiences of her last few summers. She begins to understand that Boo truly was their neighbor and cared about “his children,” Scout, Jem, and Dill. When she gets home, Scout falls asleep as Atticus reads to her at Jem's bedside.