How does Harper Lee use setting to establish and develop tone in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The term tone is defined as the writer's attitude toward the subject in a written work. Tone can be created through diction, point of view, and other literary elements. Among literary elements, setting can be used to develop tone because setting can convey emotions. In To Kill a Mockingbird, author Harper Lee uses the setting of the sleepy town of Maycomb, a town aroused to activity due to racial tensions, to develop her rebuking yet accepting tone throughout the book.

Author Lee describes the setting of Maycomb as a "tired old town" in the opening chapter. It is a "tired old town" for several reasons: (1) the story takes place during the Great Depression when no one has any money to do much or go anywhere; (2) being a very rural town, it looks a bit run-down with its grass growing on sidewalks and its courthouse sagging; and (3) its people are very set it in their ways, moving slowly as they carry on with the traditions of their day. Lee's opening description of Maycomb helps paint the picture that the town is full of quiet, generally decent folks who are stuck in their ways. Throughout the book, Lee shows that being stuck in one's ways can be both good and bad. Later in the book, after Tom Robinson loses his trial, Jem feels disillusioned by the people of Maycomb, having once thought "Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world" (Ch. 22). Miss Maudie corrects Jem, saying, "We're the safest folks in the world" (Ch. 22). Lee uses such comments about the setting of Maycomb, including its people, to show that, while Maycomb is full of safe people, they are not necessarily the best people, because they are stuck in their ways, particularly stuck in their racist views. All in all, Lee uses the setting of Maycomb to give us a dual perspective: on the one hand, Maycomb is full of generally decent folks, but on the other hand, Maycomb's people are not without their flaws. Hence, Lee's tone throughout the book rebukes certain actions performed by the folks of Maycomb while also accepting their generally good nature as people.

A second moment in which Lee uses setting to develop her dual tone is the mob scene. The mob scene takes place in front of Maycomb's county jail where Atticus sits under a light bulb, reading a newspaper, as he calmly waits to defend his client. Interestingly, Lee describes the jail as the "most venerable and hideous of the county's buildings" (Ch. 15). She further describes it as something an insane person might have dreamed up, a "miniature Gothic joke" (Ch. 15). Since Gothic arts and literature are known for their darkness and their portrayals of the depraved human soul, we see that Lee is using the jail to symbolize the darker side of human nature. More interestingly, the jail stands in stark contrast with the quaint buildings of the town positioned on either side of the jail along the town square such as The Maycomb Tribune office and Tyndal's Hardware Store. It is in front of the hideous, dark, Gothic jail that goodness prevails as Scout manages to remind Walter Cunningham of his humanity through friendly conversation, leading him to give the order to break up the mob. Lee uses the contrasting setting of the dark jail against other charming buildings to symbolize the dual nature of Maycomb's generally good yet prejudiced people and further develop the dual tone she uses to address the subject of her novel, a tone that both criticizes and accepts the actions of generally good yet prejudiced people.

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litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Lee uses the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird to establish a tone of cantankerousness, akin to a grumpy old town that has seen better days.

After the description of the Finch family and some of the distinctions of being a Southerner, Scout describes the town of Maycomb.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. (ch 1)

In this one sentence, and the ones that follow, Lee establishes a tone of age.  Maycomb is almost like a person, and if Maycomb was a person it would be a grumpy old lady.  It was hotter then.  People moved more slowly.  There was nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.  Maycomb has seen better days, and it is tired.

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