In Chapter One what does the reader learn about Maycomb, Atticus Finch, and his family in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Functioning as the exposition of the novel, Chapter 1 of To Kill a Mockingbird provides an introduction of the main characters, a historical background of the town of Maycomb, and the larger settings of the South of the 1930s and the Great Depression. It also presents relationships and actions among the characters, which direct the narration of the novel.

Loosely based upon Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Maycomb is located in the southern region of Alabama. The narrator Scout notes that her family has felt some chagrin that their family tree does not extend from either the English or the French side of the famous Battle of Hastings/Norman Conquest of 1066. Instead, they have no more prestigious ancestor than Simon Finch who, with three slaves, settled on the banks of the Alabama River.

The settlement of Simon Finch became known as Finch's Landing, and it was there that the men in the family remained and made their living from the production of cotton. This tradition continued until the twentieth century, when Atticus Finch went to Montgomery, the state's capital, in order to study law, while his younger brother Jack went to Boston to study medicine. Their sister Alexandra remained on the family property.

Atticus began his law practice in the "old town" of Maycomb, the county seat, only twenty miles from Finch's Landing. Because he did not venture out of the county, Atticus is related by blood or marriage to most of the families in Maycomb.

Maycomb is a typical quiet, sleepy Southern town. People move slowly, and a day "was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer" even on the main street of the town. Jem and Scout, who find their father "satisfactory," enjoy his reading to them every day. However, Scout often engages in "epic" battles with the black housekeeper Calpurnia; she loses, according to Scout, because Atticus always takes Cal's side. Of course, Calpurnia acts as a surrogate mother since Mrs. Finch, who was fifteen years younger than Atticus, died of a heart attack when Scout was only a toddler. 

Now Scout is almost six and her brother Jem is almost ten. Scout and Jem have summertime boundaries set for them: they can go no farther than two doors to the north of them and three doors to the south. It is within these boundaries in the summer when Jem and his sister first meet Charles Baker Harris, who asks to be called Dill. Dill, who is from Meridian, Mississippi, and lives with his Aunt Rachel, has a marvelous imagination.

Indeed, it is from the springs of Dill's imagination that various schemes flow. Despite warnings from Atticus to leave Arthur "Boo" Radley alone, the three children involve themselves with schemes to expose Boo and draw him out of the house. As explanation for his seclusion, Scout relates that Arthur once associated with the Old Sarum Bunch, but after he was charged with delinquent behavior, Mr. Radley has virtually imprisoned his son in the house and kept him out of sight. Furthermore, Mr. Radley himself is not trusted in the neighborhood because he does not interact with anyone.

Dill devises a scheme to get Jem to participate in his plan to expose Boo Radley. He bets his novel, The Grey Ghost, on a wager with Jem that he is too afraid to go past the gate of the Radleys' and try to get Boo to come out. Jem ponders this offer, then accepts a renegotiated bet: he just needs to touch the house. If Boo comes out, Dill promises that he and Scout will catch him and hold him down. Jem agrees and the children start down the street to the Radley house. The children notice "a tiny, almost invisible movement, and the house was still."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the first chapter, the reader learns that Maycomb is a small town in Alabama, the county seat of Maycomb County. It is described as a "tired old town," where people moved slowly, "for there was nothing to buy and no money to buy it with." Lee devotes the second half of the chapter to introducing Boo Radley and his house, both of which are regarded by Jem and Scout with a combination of terror and morbid curiosity. The chapter hints at the extremely tightly-knit social fabric of the town, which the Radleys have placed themselves outside of by refusing to go to church or participate in other public activities. However, we also learn a considerable amount about Atticus. He is described as an educated man, an attorney who has also served in the state legislature. However, despite his education, he is "Maycomb County born and bred," and is "related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town." His wife passed away from a heart attack shortly after giving birth to Scout, leaving Atticus alone to raise the two children. Scout says that the two nevertheless "found our father satisfactory; he played with us, read to use, and treated us with courteous detachment." The fourth member of the household, however, the cook Calpurnia, is described as a "tyrannical presence." 

Source: Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Warner Books, 1960).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial