What Do We Learn About Maycomb Society in “To Kill a Mockingbird”
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Harper Lee was born in 1926 and lived in a small, under populated county in Southwest Alabama called Monroeville, (Maycomb is a fictional representation of Monroeville) her father was a lawyer (like Atticus) and served the state legislature for 12 years. Lee was the youngest of 3 children (like Scout). During her childhood, there were a series of trials called the ‘Scottsboro Trials’, where nine black men were falsely accused of raping two white women (just like the Tom Robinson trial during Scout’s childhood).
Lee finished studying law at the age of 23, which is probably where she learnt about all the issues, politics and law at that time. Although Harper Lee only published one book, she was known as one of the most accomplished authors of her time and was one of the 2 persons named by President Johnson to the National Council of Arts.
Lee has written various stories about her memories and in recent years she has been awarded for her ‘lyrical elegance, her portrayal of human strength and wisdom.’ Although the story of Lee’s childhood and Scout’s sounds very familiar, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is not purely autobiographical.
The story, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ by Harper Lee, was written in the 1950s, but was set in the 1930s. It fits into the genres: coming-of-age story, social drama, courtroom drama, southern drama. It covers controversial issues like racism, prejudice, justice, courage; family etc. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has brought pleasure, inspiration and direction in the lives of millions of people. It has never been out of print and continues to have a place on many ‘best of’s’ lists.
The story takes place around the Southern States of America in the 1930s where ‘Negroes’ were still segregated. It was the time of the economic depression which President Roosevelt was trying to demolish with his ‘New Deal’ policy. It is based around the trial of Tom Robinson, (a black man who is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella who is clearly a liar) and the prejudice of the time through the verdict. The story was written in the late 1950s, when civil disturbances and rioting in the USA showed that blacks were no longer going to accept the status of inferiors.
The story is written in first person, by a little girl called Scout, who learns about most of the law watching and following in her older brother Jem’s footsteps. I think this is very interesting as it shows a child’s perspective. She has no prejudice and she doesn’t understand the racism in the town, which gives the Scout the opportunity to ask about these contentious issues and explain it to the reader indirectly. Scout sees Prejudice and racism as unfairness and often misunderstands or takes a while to understand issues and obstacles she must come across. She is honest and is able to spot hypocrisy and prejudice, but is unable to understand it which shows us that that kind of behavior towards another is inhumane and unnatural. This allows an innocent perspective to the readers. At first Scout tries to fight her way out of various problems, but with a little advice from Atticus, she is able to put herself in others shoes.
Maycomb, although fictitious was a secluded county like many others in the Southern part of USA, because of becoming so closed and really rejecting the new, the families who lived in Maycomb were there for generations and the next generation would be expected to live in the house that they grew up in and because of this, everyone knows everything about everyone else. People in Maycomb were labeled and stereotyped according to what their family members’ generations ago must have been like or what the families have become and individual qualities of people are not given any verdict. Boo Radley is stereotyped as a monster and children fear him as they walk past the Radley house, I know this because the quotes ‘inside the house lived a…’ and ‘the misery of that house’ suggest that the Radleys are regarded as strange and different because they do not follow the patterns of behavior that people in Maycomb expect.
The people in Maycomb were very laid back; they took life as it came. They did not want change. ‘There was no hurry, no where to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with’. As the people had no entertainment, they relied on the gossip of other people’s dirty little secrets over generations and made up stories when they had no explanation. Most of the people were fixed in their ways and in Maycomb; people were grouped into the rigid class system. First came the Finches, then the Cunnighams, followed by the Ewells and lastly the blacks, people the majority of Maycomb refused to accept.
Everyone had groups. The differences in social status are explored greatly throughout the book. For example, Scout cannot understand why Aunt Alexandra refuses to let Walter Cunningham, just because he is a Cunningham. This shows the prejudice within human interaction.
There was a church for the white people and a church for the black people. When Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to the church, some of the black people were uncomfortable about this. Lula was furious with Calpurnia for bringing the children to the black people’s church. ‘You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here – they got their own church, we got our’n. It’s our church ain’t it, Miss Cal?’ this shows how segregated the two communities were form each other. But, not all black people portrayed so much hatred towards the white people, Zeebo, the garbage collector was glad to see some new faces around his church, ‘Mister Jem, we’re mighty glad to have you all here. Don’t pay no ‘tention to Lula…’ this shows that even though the majority of the community were uncomfortable or showed revulsion to the opposite community and that is why it is impossible to judge a group of people because of one persons faults, mistakes or detestation, which is what Maycomb didn’t do.
Lee doesn’t only show the bad side of the society, it is the moral nature of human beings. Writing the book in a child’s perspective dramatizes children’s innocence, where they assume that all people are good because they have never seen evil, and the must incorporate it into their understanding of the world. People like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley (the 2 mockingbird figures) are not prepared for the evil that they receive and because of this they are in distraught and destroyed.
The book covers various themes relating to issues of the time like courage, family, justice and prejudice and hatred. Also the image of the mockingbird occurs frequently in the book. Although there is not really a literal connection to the Mockingbird, the symbol of the mockingbird carries a lot of weight in the book.
Boo Radley is one of the main mockingbird figures in the book. Miss Maudie explains to Scout ‘… They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ The wrongs of killing a mockingbird are obvious, but when I was researching the topic, it shows that it becomes a metaphor for the injustice of harming innocent and vulnerable people; ‘the senseless slaughter of songbirds.’ (Tom Robinson’s death) Boo is one of the main persons who is harmed. Scout thinks that hurting Boo would be like ‘shootin’ a mockingbird.’ Jem and Scout’s last name is Finch, which is another type of small bird, which could indicate that they are particularly defenseless in the racist world of Maycomb, which treats fragile innocence of childhood harshly.
As the novel progresses, the children change their attitude towards Boo Radley. This shows that they are developing form innocence to a more grown-up moral perspective like Atticus. As he leaves them presents in the tree and mends Jem’s pants, Boo gradually becomes more real to them. At the end of the novel he becomes fully human to Scout, which shows us that she is growing up to be sympathetic and understanding individual. ‘You can pet him Mr. Arthur, he’s asleep. You couldn’t if he was awake, though, he wouldn’t let you’ Scout says to Boo because she is able to understand his body language. She says ‘I was beginning to learn his body English’ which emphasizes that she has matured into a sensitive individual, through a learning experience.
Despite the pain that Boo had suffered, the purity of his heart is what makes him able to interact with the children, who are portrayed as pure themselves. In saving Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell, Boo proves the ultimate symbol of good.
Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement, died on October 24 this year, but her spirit lives in hundreds of thousands of people inspired by her wavering commitment to work for a better world. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, an entire race of people began to stand up for the rights as human beings. It was the simple act that took extraordinary courage in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1st, 1955. Jim Crow’s segregation laws had met their match. Park’s refusal infused 50,000 blacks in Montgomery with the will to walk rather than the risk of daily humiliation on the city’s buses.
Park’s changed the way people thought, she was an unassuming activist. It was a simple act that had a huge impact. ‘I was not tired physically, no, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in’ wrote Parks in her 1992 autobiography, Rosa Parks: My story.
Parks moved to Montgomery at the ago of 11 because there were no schools for African-Americans beyond sixth grade in the rural towns. Maycomb, probably had no schools for African-Americans above the sixth grade too, and if Maycomb did, there would be a separate school for the white people and a separate schools for the African Americans.
Parks’ became the ‘catalyst’ for a movement that broke the back of legalised segregation in the USA, gave the rise to the amazing leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and inspired fighters for freedom and justice throughout the world. If Maycomb was a real county, at some point, it would also change the laws and make segregation and prejudice illegal.
When ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was written, this rule had not been issued out as yet and the people were legally allowed to show prejudice towards people from another race, particularly black people, who were the main target at that time. The book might have been heavily influenced with the politics that went on at that time, with the births of so many political figures like Rosa Parks.
The people in Maycomb were also extremely narrow minded and this is evident in their treatment of Boo Radley, who in his youth resorted to some teenage pranks and the town were shocked and amazed by his wild teenage years that he was ‘punished’ by the judge, who’s verdict sent him to the industrial school. When Atticus agrees to stand up for Tom Robinson, people are uncomfortable with a white accomplished man standing up for a black man like Tom Robinson, but Atticus follows his conscience, and does what he feels is right, even thought the rest of the society don’t agree with it. Bob Ewell tries to get back at Atticus by attempting to kill his two innocent children; this shows the reader who strongly Ewell feels Atticus’ did something immensely wrong by defending a black man and humiliating Ewell and his daughter Mayella by making them look like liars.
Living in a small town like Maycomb at that time, was a bad time for the African- Americans of the US. The blacks were considered to be the lowest class and they were hated by the whites and vice-versa, all the worst jobs were especially reserved for the blacks. Even through all this the society was still quite tight knit, in a crisis they would help each other, and during the fire of Miss Maudie’s house the whole community lend a helping hand.
People who kept to themselves in Maycomb were considered to be ‘misfits’ or ‘outsiders’. The Radleys were considered misfits because they didn’t pay social calls like the mass of Maycomb. People were also superstitious at that time which cause them to gossip about the well-being of Boo Radley who they thought was dead as they had not seen him for years… they made him a ghost and each one made their own stories about him.
New comers in Maycomb, like Miss Caroline were unaware of the situation of the people of Maycomb and how badly affected they were with the depression. When Scout hints to Miss Caroline that she shouldn’t give Walter Cunningham money for his lunch because he’ll never be able to pay her back by saying ‘he’s a Cunningham’ Miss Caroline is confused as she is unaware of their situation at home, unlike the rest of Maycomb that have known that for a long time.
The racism in Maycomb was strong. Miscegenation did not have a place in Southern society. Mr. Dolphus’ mixed children are pitied because ‘coloured folks won’t have ’em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ’em because they’re coloured, they’re just the in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere’ because the mixing of race was not tolerated, the people of Maycomb had to justify their beliefs to themselves and others.