How does the description of Simon Finch in first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird help you to understand the important themes and issues that will be explored later in the novel?

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At first glance, the first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee seems to contain a lot of background information that is interesting but not necessarily relevant.  The character of Simon Finch is a good example.  Simon Finch is an ancestor of the Finch family, and “a fur-trapping...

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At first glance, the first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee seems to contain a lot of background information that is interesting but not necessarily relevant.  The character of Simon Finch is a good example.  Simon Finch is an ancestor of the Finch family, and “a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess” (ch 1).  Through the description of Simon, Lee artfully foreshadows some of the major themes of the book, including prejudice and persecution, standing up for one’s principles, and the importance of heritage.  However the concept of hypocrisy is also introduced.

Through the story of Simon Finch, we are introduced to the concept of persecution and how to respond.

In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens. (ch 1)

Although the persecution presented in the story is against Boo Radley and the black population, the persecution of Methodists, a religious group Simon Finch seems to loosely associate himself with, foreshadows later issues of religion (the Radley family) and prejudice (Tom Robinson).  Simon Finch stood up for what he believed in.  He was principled, as Atticus Finch is later.

We are also introduced to hypocrisy early in the novel through Simon.  Simon’s religious beliefs were used for profit, because “mindful of John Wesley's strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine” (ch 1).  Another example of Simon’s hypocrisy is his ownership of slaves.

So Simon, having forgotten his teacher's dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. (ch 1)

Simon’s story demonstrates the importance of heritage to people in the South, as “it was customary for the men in the family to remain on Simon's homestead, Finch's Landing, and make their living from cotton” (ch 1).  Atticus and his children share Simon’s legacy, both in terms of values and monetary resources.

Atticus derived a reasonable income from the law. He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him, and because of Simon Finch's industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town. (ch 1)

This passage is also significant because it demonstrates how Maycomb is a family in some ways, and another reason why the folks look up to Atticus Finch.

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The first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird prefaces many of the concepts and narrative strands to be explored later in the novel.  It begins with a reference to one of the culminating events of the novel (Jem's arm being broken - it is appropriate for a child's version of the events to emphasise the broken arm part of the story rather than the attack by Ewell or the rescue by Radley), introduces the central family (the Finches), the geographic and social context of the story (quiet, hot little town in southern USA dominated by whites (but in which at least one, Boo Radley, is marginalised) in which African Americans are servants/employed workers).

You list the concept "focus on Simon Finch." Finch is the English ancestor of Jem and Scout who came to the US and as a wealthy man, established a plantation (complete with slaves) at Finch's Landing, about 20 miles from Maycomb.  Finch's descendents continued the plantation, but the novel claims the family lost its wealth at the time of the Civil War.  At the time of the events presented in the novel, only Atticus Finch's sister and her husband live at Finch's Landing.

Does this prefigure issues and themes in the novel? Only in a contextual way.  The Finch family had money once and certainly Atticus Finch occupies a privileged position in Maycomb society.  Part of this would be because of his education, but part would also be because his family has been in the area for a long time (it is my experience that such things are esteemed in rural communitites).  What I'm suggesting here is that the Simon Finch story gives the reader a sense of Scout's family's place in this society - near the top.

The story also explains the presence of and low social status of African Americans in the town - that is, their ancestors were slaves.  If you generalise the reference to the economic disruption of the Civil War for the Finch family to the rest of the county, that may also help account for some of the lethargy in the town, but I wouldn't push this too far - in historical terms, the Great Depression was probably more of a factor.

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