In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, what does the town’s response to the fire at Miss Maudie’s house reveal about Maycomb’s universe of obligation? (A community’s universe of obligation includes the circle of individuals and groups toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends. In other words, a community’s universe of obligation consists of those its members believe are worthy of respect and protection.)

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It's notable that, though Miss Maudie is something of a free spirit, an outsider almost, the good folk of Maycomb don't hesitate to step into the breach when her house catches fire. This is because, when all's said and done, Miss Maudie is something of a local institution. Even if...

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It's notable that, though Miss Maudie is something of a free spirit, an outsider almost, the good folk of Maycomb don't hesitate to step into the breach when her house catches fire. This is because, when all's said and done, Miss Maudie is something of a local institution. Even if people object to her free-spirited ways, or find her a tad eccentric in her dress and habits, she's still ultimately one of them; she belongs in Maycomb.

What we can observe here are (white) Southern manners at their finest. A middle-aged white woman needs urgent help, and so it's only right and proper, according to the prevailing values, that everyone responds as quickly as possible. The help afforded by the townsfolk is proof that everyone regards Miss Maudie as an intrinsic part of the community.

Though certainly an admirable attitude, it's important to recognize that had such a huge fire consumed the house of an African-American, then such assistance would not have been rendered. This is because, in this deeply racist society, African-Americans are not really regarded as full citizens with the same rights as their white counterparts. That being the case, they're not given anything like the same help and support offered to white folks in distress like Miss Maudie.

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Miss Maudie is a white woman in her fifties who lives alone on Scout's street. She doesn't have any children or family nearby, so looking after a lonely woman like Maudie would be a priority for a small town. However, when Helen Robinson, a black woman, is left alone because her husband is placed in jail, she can't be helped by anyone but her own reverend to survive. This shows that there is definitely a certain class of people who receive help from one portion of the community as opposed to another. Scout discusses this a little bit in Chapter 13, as follows:

"There was indeed a caste system in Maycomb, but to my mind it worked this way: the older citizens, the present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time" (131).

Scout is mostly discussing genetics in this passage, but it also shows that people are accustomed to helping those with whom they have a connection. Miss Maudie's position in the community affords her the prompt and loving response of her neighbors to help her during the fire. Because the Maycomb fire truck conked out due to the weather, the Abbottsville truck was called in to save the house. Unfortunately, they were a little too late, as the fire had burned through most of the house when they arrived.

Needless to say, anything and everything that could be done to save Maudie's house was done. If it had been Helen Robinson's house, though, the black community probably would have formed a fire line of people with buckets from a well or river to her home to help, but a fire truck may not have been dispatched. Since Maycomb is predominantly white, Miss Maudie benefitted from her white privileges when her house caught fire. That is Maycomb's universe of obligation--to serve one's own kind. And, since the white community has more resources at their disposal, they were able to use them for Maudie's sake.

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In very small towns, such as Maycomb, the "universe of obligation" is thought of in terms of being neighborly and helping one another, especially in crucial times.

In the Deep South, which is part of what is called "the Bible Belt," people would think of this universe of obligation as simply being Christian. Therefore, they would "do unto others" as they would wish done to them. [Luke 6:31]. In other words, Miss Maudie's neighbors help her because such actions are neighborly and right. 

Another passage that the citizens of Maycomb follow in Chapter 8 is also from the Gospel of Luke:

And the crowds asked Jesus, “What then shall we do?” And He answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” [Luke 3:10-11]

Miss Maudie is certainly a person that the community feels is worthy of protection and help. Because she is an older woman who has no family living with her, she clearly needs assistance from others when her house catches on fire.

The old fire truck, killed by the cold, was being pushed from town by a crowd of men.

Unfortunately, when the men finally get the truck before the burning house, the hydrant water is so cold that it freezes in the hose, bursting the hose as chips of ice are sent "tinkling down onto the pavement." Apparently, all that can be done is to salvage Miss Maudie's furniture. Atticus carries out her heavy oak rocking chair, knowing this chair is what she values the most. Miss Maudie's boarder, Mr. Avery, throws his mattress from upstairs as well as some furniture. Soon, men shout to him that the stairs are going and he better get out; so, Mr. Avery barely squeezes himself through the window and tries to slide down a pillar, but he slips and falls into the shrubs. When the fire rages and threatens nearby houses, fortunately, the fire truck from a neighboring town arrives and pumps water onto the Finch roof and others. 

With her house a total loss, Miss Maudie receives the charitable offer from Miss Stephanie that she can live with her "for the time being." Grateful, Miss Maudie expresses her concern that her burning house has caused so much commotion and danger.

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In chapter 8, Miss Maudie's home catches on fire, and the entire community of Maycomb comes to her aid by attempting to save all of her furniture before the home collapses. Scout and Jem watch from a safe distance as Atticus and their neighbors work together to save Maudie's possessions. As the flames spread throughout the home, the children watch Atticus carry Maudie's heavy oak rocking chair out of her house while Mr. Avery pushes her bed out of the upstairs window.

When the flames reach the upstairs of the home, Mr. Avery attempts to squeeze through the small window and almost gets stuck while he escapes the house. In addition to witnessing the local men enter Maudie's dangerous burning home to save her furniture, Scout and Jem also watch as the men push Maycomb's broken-down firetruck to the nearest hydrant.

In regards to the universe of obligation, the audience recognizes that the citizens of Maycomb feel obligated to help their community members in need. The citizens of Maycomb immediately come to Maudie's aid and do not hesitate to help her. They selflessly risk their lives in order to save her furniture, which demonstrates their compassion, support, and responsibility. The citizens feel obligated to help a neighbor in need and spare no expense when administering aid.

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