How does the town of Maycomb function as a character with its own personality, rather than just a backdrop for the story's events?

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Have you ever seen the movie, The Music Man?  There is something about the functioning of Maycomb as a town in To Kill a Mockingbirdthat always reminds me of the function of the town in the movie.  I guess the best question to ask yourself about Maycomb's role in the book is to ask whether the plot of this story could have occurred in another kind of town.  For me, the answer to that question is that it would have been a very different story. 

Maycomb represents the best and worst of small-town America, in my opinion, and certainly represents the best and worst of small Southern towns in that era. As in many small towns, people are closely connected.  Scout tells us, "Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in town (5).  People are more interested in the doings of others in the town because this is a source of entertainment.  Scout says everyone in the town was slow-moving because there was nowhere in particular to go. There isn't even a "picture show."  Church was Maycomb's "principal recreation" (9).  In a town like this, racial and class divisions are clear and important, and because everyone is closely connected to everyone else, whatever anyone does becomes everyone's business.  Of course, in a town like this, the close connections also provide an incredibly supportive network for people, who help one another and watch out for one another. 

Now, suppose for a moment that the events in the story had taken place in New York City, or even in Atlanta, which was a fairly large city even in the time in which the story is set.  People would not have been so involved with one another.  They would have minded their own business. They might not have even known the names of their neighbors.  Atticus would not have been paid in farm produce, the children would not have been permitted to roam at will, and nobody would have reported their activities to Atticus.  A trial might not have been of much interest to anyone. The racial and class divisions would not have been as apparent, since people in large cities tend to not be as connected to one another. 

Those are just a few differences that would have existed in a different setting.  I am sure you can think of at least a few more for yourself.  All of these differences support the idea that the kind of place Maycomb is is central to this novel. 

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In chapter 1, Harper Lee personifies the small, old town of Maycomb, Alabama, as being "tired." The town of Maycomb also moves slowly and Scout mentions that "a day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County" (Lee, 6). Essentially, the town of Maycomb functions as a character by being personified as an old individual who holds onto traditional values and does not wish to accept modern beliefs and ideologies, particularly in regard to race.

Throughout the novel, the town reflects and represents the ideals of its citizens. Harper Lee illustrates both the positive and negatives associated with small southern towns in the 1930s during the Jim Crow era. The community is close-knit, shares ideological beliefs, and is aware of everyone's business because of the town's small size. Given the lack of entertainment options in Maycomb, the Tom Robinson trial becomes the talk of the town, and the entire community shows up to the courthouse to watch Atticus defend Tom. However, the town's prejudiced beliefs are emphasized and reflected by Tom Robinson's wrongful conviction. Despite Tom's conviction, Miss Maudie mentions that she felt that the trial was a baby step in the right direction for the community of Maycomb. Overall, the town of Maycomb functions more as a character than a setting because of the community's unity and shared ideological beliefs. As a character, the town of Maycomb is depicted as an old, prejudiced individual who has many positive traits but is reluctant to change his or her traditional way of life.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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