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What Does the Reader Learn about the Social Setting in “To Kill A Mockingbird”?

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Harper Lee, the author of the compelling novel, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ created the town of Maycomb and placed it in the southern sate of Alabama. The novel set in the 1930’s some 70 years after the civil war had been fought and lost and slavery was abolished, the black residents of the town still receive racist abuse from the white people of Maycomb. The blacks who lived in the southern states received more racial discrimination than the blacks living in the northern states this is because the southern states were agricultural and used blacks as slaves whereas the northern states were industrial so there wasn’t such a demand for slaves. America at this time was enduring a deep depression, courtesy of the Wall Street crash 1929, which affected everyone.

Maycomb is a typical 1930’s town. The town is very close knit which I think is a positive feature of the town as this gives a good community spirit. People from the town benefit from the town being close knit; ‘The men of Maycomb, in all degrees of dress and undress, took furniture from Miss Maudie’s house to a yard across the street.’ When Miss Maudie’s house set ablaze everyone from the town turned up to give their support. The town has to be like this as it is isolated and a backwater town.

Maycomb is a very slow and old fashioned town. Harper Lee writes the novel so the characters appear sleepy and never really do anything, this makes us suspect that something exciting is about to happen; ‘a day was twenty-four hours long but seemed much longer,’ this helps build up the tension for the climax.

‘Nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.’ For its residents, Maycomb is the world and there is little to do in Maycomb itself. ‘A day was twenty four hours long but seemed longer.’ This, I think is why the smallest piece of information about a member of the community are exciting gossip for the other residents. Everybody likes to know everything about everybody else. Boo Radley is a character that is not known about, this makes him stand out as being different. I think the rumours surrounding Boo Radley came about because the residents of Maycomb county don’t like living so close to a person they know so little about, especially as they know so much about everybody else, ‘Boo drove the sissors into his parent’s leg, pulled them out, wiped them on his pants, and resumed his activities.’

The fact that Maycomb is a small community also means that it is harder for a member to go against a common belief. When Atticus decides to accept the case of Tom Robinson he realises that this will make him unpopular with many people. I think that because the residents of Maycomb have no outside influences it is harder for changes to occur. Problems like racism and sexism would have to be solved from within. With the majority of people having the same beliefs it is harder for change to occur. When Miss Caroline offers to lend Walter Cunningham a quarter for his lunch Scout rises and states, ‘Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham.’ Scout and the class would have expected anyone to know that a Cunningham would not take anything that they couldn’t pay back. This shows that Maycomb is a very close town and that everyone knows the characteristics of their peers.

Maycomb is also very conservative, people are afraid to change their way of life and their attitudes towards people, When Atticus defends a black person, Tom Robinson, he is accused of being a, ‘nigger lover.’ As Maycomb is a backwater town, a 100 miles from the nearest city therefore it is old fashioned, the maycomb residents are used to their way of life and have carried out the same routines for many years. One thing that is changing in Maycomb is the educational system. When Sout starts school she finds out that it is nothing like what she expected. Her new teacher Miss Caroline is from out of town, she teaches differently, in a new radical way, these methods confuse the children; ‘you ain’t called on to teach folks like that…. Them ain’t Maycomb’s ways, Miss Caroline.’ The children react to this and treat her differently as she is an outsider which shows prejudice. The Maycomb residents resent outsiders even the children, they do not accept them, Scout and Jem are prejudice to Dill when they first meet, but turn out to be best friends, Jem intimidates Dill by saying; ‘why don’t you come over, Charles Baker Harris?’

The Law plays a part in the novel. The law discriminated the blacks at this time and place. In the court case, where Tom Robinson, a black man, was allegedly raped Mayella Ewell, a white girl from a white trash family that lived by a dump. The evidence is clear that Tom was innocent but he was still found guilty by the jury. This shows that there was no justice when a mans colour was involved:

‘In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.’

It is hard to think that Maycomb could be so prejudice seeing as they are all church goers, with the exception of the Ewells. Blacks and whites although worshiping the same God had to do so in separate churchs. There was one incident in the book where Calpurnia, the Finches cook, took Jem and Scout to her church where they were welcomed by most except for a women called Lula: ‘You ain’t got no business bringn’ white chillum here – they got their church, we got our’n.’

Throughout the novel many different characters were introduced. Towards the end of the novel after the trial, Jem tries to explain to Scout that there are four types of people in the world:

‘there’s the ordinary folk like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.’

Jem then goes on to say how the people in the different classes from Maycomb County did not get on, ‘our kind don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the coloured folks.’ This is backed up by something that Aunt Alexandra says, ‘there is no doubt in my mind that they’re good folks. But they’re not our kind of folks.’ This shows prejudice towards the people in different classes. Scout who is younger and more nave, disagrees with this and says, ‘Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.’ This shows Scouts innocence and childish characteristics.

It is quite obvious that poverty is a problem in Maycomb. ‘Nothing to buy and no money to buy it with,’ this is how the introduction to the book describes the poverty. The Finches are not badly affected by poverty compared to some of the families that we learn about in the book. The Cunninghams can’t afford to pay Atticus for the legal work he does for them in money, instead he pays in produce from his farm, ‘not in money, but before theyears out I’ll have been paid,’ ‘the Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them hardest.’ The Cunninghams are respected members of the community because they try to lead a normal life and do not use their poverty as an excuse for bad behaviour. The Ewell family are in a similar situation to the Cunninghams. Unlike the Cunninghams the Ewells do not abide by the law. ‘Atticus said the Ewells had been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations.’

No action is taken, though the children do not attend school and Bob Ewell hunts and traps illegally. The Ewells are left alone. Perhaps this is because the residents of Maycomb feel guilty that any of them could have ended up in that situation as a result of the Depression but it happened to the Ewells. Or maybe this is the reason that the residents use to hide behind and the real reason is that nobody wants to stand up to Bob Ewell because of his violent reputation. The Finches may not be in the same degree of poverty as the Cunninghams or the Ewells but it is clear that they are not a rich family. In the book Jem and Scout never seem to be playing with toys, they make up their own games, Scout asks Atticus if they were poor and he replies, ‘we are indeed.’ The Wall Street crash effect everyone and include everyone in Maycomb. The famers and labourors were poor and the proffesionals were because the farmers and labourer were poor.

America had great racial divides at this time and Maycomb was no exception. Racism is an important theme in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Even those who are not racist accept racism as part of everyday life. ‘Everybody says Nigger,’ This shows that scout has heard the word used at school and assumed that because other people use it, it is not wrong. This demonstrates how racism can be spread across generations. People with racist ideas might not realise that their beliefs are offensive because it is what they have been brought up with. People aren’t born with racial views. The most obvious example of racism in the book is the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. After hearing the evidence from both sides it is quite obvious that Tom Robinson is not guilty of the rape. The jury however find him guilty. The people of Maycomb are not prepared to consider the evidence fairly to come to their own conclusions. The minds of the jury are made up before they even enter the courtroom.

The trial is a waste of time because everybody knows the verdict before it is announced. The racism of Maycomb’s white community blocks their judgement. The way Atticus’s friends and family react to him defending Tom Robinson reveals the racist members of the community. ‘He’s ruinin’ the family.’ This quotation from Alexandra, Atticus’s sister shows that she is ashamed to have black people linked with her family. ‘I guess it ain’t your fault your Uncle Atticus is a nigger lover.’ Alexandra does not hide her feelings about Atticus from her son. She is passing on her racism to Francis. The way she explains the situation to her son suggests that she believes Atticus has changed from being ‘Uncle Atticus’ to being a ‘nigger lover’. Later on in the book Aunt Alexandra comes to live with the Finches in Maycomb because she thinks they need a feminine influence. Alexandra suggests to Atticus that he doesn’t need Calpurnia, his black cook and should get rid of her. Alexandria isn’t racist in her explanation of why she thinks Calpurnia should leave but I think she senses that Jem and Scout are attached to her and she doesn’t want them to grow up accepting black people as equal.

Looking at the relationship between Atticus and Alexandra it is not clear whether or not they were brought up by racist parents. Another racist character of Maycomb is Nathan Radley, when he suspected there had been intruders in his garden his racism appeared. ‘I’ll shoot them whether it’s a dog or a nigger.’ This shows that he sees Negroes on the same level as dogs. He immediately suspects that it is a black person who invaded his garden. Mrs Dubose, an old lady who shouts her opinions about Atticus defending Tom Robinson at Jem and Scout as they walk past her house, is also racist. She has a black servant called Jesse who nurses Mrs Dubose as she becomes ill, they seem to get on very well. This shows how illogical her racism is. She can’t justify why she detests black people so much. A more unexpected example of racism comes when Atticus is sitting outside Maycomb jail to protect Tom Robinson who is inside. A lynch mob arrives with the intention of shooting Tom Robinson.

The members of the lynch mob are friends and neighbours of Atticus and are surprised and embarrassed to find him outside the jail. They become even more embarrassed when Scout arrives to see Atticus and not understanding the situation and makes conversation with members of the mob that she recognises as if she had met them in the street. ‘ Tell Walter I said “Hey” won’t you Mr Cunningham.’ The situation demonstrates how racism can change people unexpectedly. Dolphus Raymond is a white man who is one the only non-racists in Maycomb, he is married to a black women, and because of this he is considered a reject in society. He is always seen with a bottle in a brown paper bag, which everyone expects to be alcohol, but turns out to be nothing but cola.

He tells Scout and Dill at the court case this, and then tells them that he does it not for his own benefit but to give everyone else a reason, ‘if I weave a little and drink out of this sack, folks can say Dolphus Raymond’s in the clutches of whisky – that’s why he won’t change his ways.’ This shows that people won’t accept him if he says that he loves a black women. There are several examples of segregation in the novel. Only white children attend Jem and Scout’s school, there is a separate one for black children. Jem and Scout go with Calpurnia to her church, which is for black people and receive some disapproving comments from several members of the congregation. In the courtroom, white people sit on the lower level and black people sit above in the upper level. Racism is described in the book as ‘Maycomb’s usual disease’ Perhaps it is described as a disease because it spreads and people can’t help catching it.

I think that Haper Lee’s attitude towards the fictional town of Maycomb which is partly autobiographical is fond. Haper Lee expresses some of her own memories into the book through the children. Lee’s childhood would have been much like Scout and Jems. Lee herself lived in Alabama so would have seen the same attitudes towards certain people as Scout encounters in the novel.

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