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Two aspects of the story, in particular, distinguish the setting: the Great Depression of the 1930s as it affected small towns in the South and the effects of the pre-Civil War Southern culture upon the culture of the post-Civl War South. Maycomb is a poor place, its streets unpaved and its sidewalks cracked and broken. The courthouse "sagged" in the town square. There is no money for repairs or improvement. Scout recalls it as "a tired old town." She remembers "there was no where to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with." Being a rural community, Maycomb suffered because the farmers suffered most during the Depression, as Atticus pointed out. He himself was often paid in what his clients could grow on their land. When Tom Robinson's friends and family wanted to show their appreciation for Atticus, they brought him gifts of food.
The culture of the pre-Civil war South echoes in the story. It is seen in the deeply entrenched attitudes of racism; segregation is the norm, questioned by only a few in town. Racial hatred and violence is seen in the lynch mob that comes for Tom Robinson at the jail. Ideas of Southern tradition and social class are found in Aunt Alexandra's character. Numerous references are made throughout the story to Confederate generals and events from Southern history.
The novel's universal themes develop ideas of justice, courage, compassion, and brotherhood. The novel condemns hypocrisy and cruelty. Atticus is a universal character in that he represents all that is good and decent in human nature, all we should aspire to be. Also, Jem's and Scout's experiences in growing up are universal in a general sense, although their specific experiences grow out of life in Maycomb at that time. Like all children, Jem and Scout find much of the adult world confusing and frequently exasperating. Perhaps the most universal aspect of the story is a father's love for his children and his dedication to their well being. Atticus feels a tremendous moral responsibility toward his children, and he forms the center of their lives.
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