How does Harper Lee present the community of Maycomb negatively in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Harper Lee does a lot in the opening chapter, in the initial description of Maycomb, to present Maycomb in a negative light. Albeit recognized as ironic wit, the wit of Lee's description is a dark wit that is meant to orient the reader to the dark side of Maycomb that makes what happens to Tom (and the threats against Atticus) rational and believable. Lee employs two significant techniques for creating negativity: (1) suggestions of negativity and (2) symbols of negativity.

There are a number of subtle suggestions that Maycomb is a troubled and negative place, despite Atticus's attachment to it. The first is that more than one set of residents, past and present, is in the "jack-ass" class. Lee tells the story of the Haverford brothers to establish the character of the dark side of the town as much as to give Atticus a back story (some might even say it is to describe the town more than to give Atticus a back story).

The fact that Atticus initially made a scant living at the law subtly exposes the town as unprosperous, as unprosperous as the Haverford brothers. This subtle link to negativity is reinforced by calling Maycomb a "tired old town."

Some symbols that subtly present Maycomb negatively are these:

  • streets of "red slop"
  • sagging courthouse: "the courthouse sagged"
  • the insufferable heat: "a black dog suffered on a summer's day"
  • "people moved slowly"; "shuffled" with "nowhere to go"
  • "nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County"

Together these paint Maycomb's underbelly of sagging slop and insufferable heat that symbolizes the moral degradation that permeates both people and the law. That the people shuffle with nowhere to go while feeling there is nothing outside Maycomb symbolizes the backward ideology and mentality of the people who cannot grasp realities beyond the cinfines of their own very narrow frame of reference.

Lee actually does a thorough job of presenting Maycomb negatively though perhaps not a good enough job as oftentimes her negative ironic wit is perceived by readers as mere ironic humor.

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