In To Kill a Mockingbird, how does the setting affect the overall plot of the novel?

Expert Answers

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

The setting of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is central to the plot's development in this classic piece of literature.

Lee prepares the reader by describing not only the longstanding traditions of the imaginary town and surrounding area of Finch's Landing, but also by referring to the Civil...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The setting of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is central to the plot's development in this classic piece of literature.

Lee prepares the reader by describing not only the longstanding traditions of the imaginary town and surrounding area of Finch's Landing, but also by referring to the Civil War and inferring the virtually ineffectual hands of change seem to have passed by the town of Maycomb.

Scout describes Maycomb:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. . . 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.

The first image the reader receives is that of age. In this "tired old town," nothing seems to change. The "ambling" and "shuffling" of people gives the reader a sense that one day runs into the next, and no one seems interested in having things any different. There is no money and nowhere to go. The world stops at the boundaries of this county.

Harper Lee's allusion to FDR's pronouncement that we have "nothing to fear but fear itself" reminds the reader that this story occurs at the time of the Great Depression, when jobs are scarce and improvements of any kind—economic, social or political—are non-existent. In many ways, this setting provides the reader with the sense that progress is not to be desired and the status quo is perfectly fine with almost everyone.

There are many themes in the story: prejudice and tolerance, guilt and innocence, knowledge and ignorance, courage and cowardice, and loss of innocence.

The lack of change—or the lack of desire for it—permeates most of Maycomb. This area of the South still distinctly recalls its position with regard to the side on which they fought in the Civil War. While slavery is no longer allowed by law, racist attitudes towards blacks remain virtually unchanged. The poor live in one depressed area of Maycomb, but black people are segregated even from the poor whites. White and black people worship in different buildings. (Ironically, while the missionary society believes in helping the oppressed poor blacks in Africa, they have no tolerance for those that live in their own backyard.) Racial discrimination abounds in the town.

Prejudice and tolerance are themes central to the story's plot, seemingly more so than any other. While there are several subordinate plots evolving over the course of the novel, a social powder keg that Lee actively and zealously addresses deals racism and intolerance. We see it most strongly with the trial of Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Her father, Bob Ewell, is a raging bigot. The idea of his daughter making a pass at a black man is more demeaning than anything else he can imagine. Even though Tom has done none of the behaviors of which he has been accused, Ewell wants him dead. This attitude reflects the behaviors of the Deep South when blacks were enslaved and seen not as humans but as possessions; with this mindset, they had no rights and little value beyond the owner's monetary investment. While there are some members of the community who do not think this way (including Atticus, Heck Tate, Judge Taylor, and Maudie Atkinson), the majority of Maycomb's citizens are either racially-centered or lack the courage or conviction to stand up to those who are. 

Tom Robinson is found guilty even though there is no question of his innocence. Atticus does an excellent job of proving Tom could not have committed such a crime, but still the jury finds him guilty.

When Tom tries to run from the prison yard, he is shot 17 times.

“They shot him,” said Atticus. “He was running. It was during their exercise period. They said he just broke into a blind raving charge at the fence and started climbing over. Right in front of them—”

This response to Tom's attempt to flee is unconscionable, especially in light of Tom's physical handicap; his ability to escape is limited. Those who shoot him are not worried about Tom getting away as much as taking Tom out—killing him—with excessive force.

The plot is galvanized forward by racism and intolerance as Bob Ewell meets Atticus on the street after the trial has ended and spits in the lawyer's face. Unable to contain his violent hatred for Atticus because he defended a black man—while also exposing Ewell for the abusive father and lying reprobate he is—Bob Ewell even goes so far as to attempt to kill Jem and Scout (Atticus' children) as they walk home unescorted from a school function one evening.

Intolerance is also seen in the way the town treats Boo (Arthur) Radley. Forced to live in the seclusion of his home since he was a young man, people are intolerant rather than sympathetic. Gossips spread lies about Boo, even attempting to scare children with their wild tales about this innocent and abused man. Ignorance of the small town mentality is also easily linked to the novel's setting.

Mrs. Dubose is a bigot, accusing the children's father of reprehensible behavior in defending Tom Robinson.

Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in the courthouse lawing for ni***rs. . . Your father's no better than the [black people] and trash he works for.

Atticus admires Mrs. Dubose's strength and commitment in light of her addiction to morphine because of her cancer. Jem cannot control his anger against Mrs. Dubose for her intolerance and racist remarks, however, especially those directed at his father, whom Jem idolizes.

Even Miss Maudie is the object of religious intolerance. The Baptist "foot washers" (as Miss Maudie calls them) are critical of Miss Maudie because she has flowers in her yard.

Footwashers believe that anything that's pleasure is a sin. . . Some of 'em came out of the woods one Saturday and passed by this place and told me me and my flowers were going to hell.

Prejudice and intolerance are at the center of nearly every element of the plot's development. It is as if Maycomb is frozen in time. This setting for the novel is developed to convey that with little change on the horizon and long-standing resentments still lingering with the end of slavery in the United States (almost 60 years after the fact), intolerance and racism are allowed to thrive. In numerous instances in the novel, this theme is easily identified.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The fictional town of Maycomb, based on Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, is the county seat where the courthouse is located. Although Maycomb may be larger and relatively more well-off than other towns in the county, the novel is set during the Great Depression so many people are poor. Its location in Alabama also connects the town to Southern history, including the Civil War, which had occurred only about 50 years before the novel takes place.

Maycomb and the surrounding area are heavily segregated by race, and severe class divisions are also evident. Only white people live in Maycomb, and the area’s black residents live in another town that is adjacent to Maycomb. The strong effect of residential segregation includes religious practices, as shown when Calpurnia takes the Finch children to her church.

Many of the area’s poor white people are farmers, who live outside of town. Some of them, such as the Cunninghams, are descended from landowners and are involved in lengthy court cases regarding unpaid taxes that prevent them from retaining full title to those inherited lands. The author does not provide information about land ownership and similar law suits that black people may have filed.

The territorial racial segregation figures into the plot in reference to Tom Robinson’s presence in a white neighborhood, which the whites found unjustified. The Ewells were too poor to hire African American people, the white people could not understand Tom’s purpose for being in a white neighborhood and rejected the idea that he would willing help Mayella without payment.

The overall relationship between class and money also figures into the plot elements involving the Finch’s neighborhood, including the Radley and Dubose homes. The Finches live in a traditionally wealthy neighborhood where the families have owned their homes for generations. The Radleys, for example, could afford to keep their adult son at home, rather than have him institutionalized. The location of the Radley home is especially important to the plot because Arthur Radley can observe and intervene in Bob Ewell’s attack on the Finch children.

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

The setting of the novel takes place during the 1930s in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Maycomb is portrayed as a "slow town," where traditions and customs remain the same. The slow nature of the town correlates with the views of its citizens. The time period and location of the story also drives the plot, which revolves around the Tom Robinson trial. During the 1930s, Jim Crow laws segregated, discriminated against, and marginalized African Americans throughout the South. In the racist town of Maycomb, African Americans are treated as second-class citizens. The main conflict of the novel concerns Atticus Finch's defense of an innocent black man in front of a prejudiced jury. Given the setting of the novel, Atticus and his family face difficult challenges because of his defense of Tom Robinson. Prejudiced neighbors criticize, threaten, and even harm Atticus and his family because he valiantly defends a black man. Unfortunately, Tom becomes a victim of racial injustice after he is wrongly convicted for assaulting and raping Mayella Ewell. Harper Lee exposes the nature of Southern towns during the Jim Crow Era by portraying the citizens' racist ideologies and the negative effects of their prejudiced views. 

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

The setting of Maycomb, the Alabama town in the South where this novel is based, is important in the plot because of the way that it represents a microcosm of the world where Scout and Jem learn valuable important lessons, even though some would look upon it and consider Maycomb to be a tiny and insignificant place in Alabama. Note how Maycomb is introduced at the beginning of the book:

 Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop... Somehow it was hotter then... bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum... 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.

Maycomb is thus introduced both as a rather sleepy town set in a historical period before many of the advances that we enjoy today, but also as a town with old-fashioned values, and a very strict code of what it is right to do and what it is not to do, as signalled through the "stiff collars" that the men used to wear in spite of the heat, and the regular pattern and routine enjoyed by most inhabitants. As the plot develops, however, it is clear that it is precisely this strict code of what is right and wrong that Maycomb has is to be explored through its hypocrisy and the perspective of the children, Jem and Scout, who don't understand why things are done in a certain way, and have to learn to respect their elders and the way things are done in Maycomb, even if they don't like or respect the actual code or practice that they object to itself. This is shown in various ways through Jem and Scout challenging those around them as they grow up and learn about the complexities of life.  

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

The setting of southern Alabama in the 1930's is essential to the verisimilitude of the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Details Essential to Characterization

  • With the Depression as a backdrop for the narrative, the people of Maycomb live rather simple lives, walking places, owning few cars or other valuable possessions. Neighborhoods are composed of people who are similar and who share similar interests. It is certainly realistic that the sharecropper Mr. Cunningham pays his debts to Atticus Finch with produce. 
    Scout describes her world:

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.

  • The 1930's is a time before the industrialization of the South, and so most of the families who have been there remain, while few, if any people immigrate from other parts of the country. Old attitudes continue.

[Maycomb] grew inward. New people so rarely settled there, the same families married the same families until the members of the community looked faintly alike. There is "a caste system in Maycomb," also, much as it was in the Old South.

  • Miss Caroline comes from Winston County, a county that sided with the North during the Civil War (which in the novel is not in such a distant past; also, this war's bitter memory is kept alive in the Deep South); consequently, Miss Caroline is not well-received, nor does she understand the culture of Maycomb, which is a long ways from Winston County. 

Details Essential to Themes and Historical Setting

  • Jim Crow Laws are in effect; that is, racial segregation exists in Maycomb County. Blacks cannot enter restaurants, hotels, and other places. They are relegated to entering through back doors and working menial jobs and living in separate areas.
    (During this time African-Americans had few, if any, rights in the South. This is why Tom Robinson is considered guilty without any hard evidence.)
  • Religious fanatics are not unusual as Maycomb is in the Bible Belt. Miss Maudie explains the mind-set of the "footwashing Baptists," who take the Bible literally and abuse others with their narrow interpretations.
  • Since it is a rather closed society, Maycomb suffers from what Atticus calls its "usual disease"; that is, people are very opinionated and do not wish to change their perspectives on their social strata and other things. Consequently, Mr. Dolphus Raymond is a social pariah because he does not adhere to the social mores of Maycomb; Mr. Radley is deprecated for his radical ways with Arthur Radley and his failure to work; Bob Ewell is despicable because he is a drunkard, slovenly, neglectful of his family, and lazy and ignorant--he is considered "white trash."

The interaction of these different facets of Maycomb's society and setting move the plot since many of the complications and thematic meanings develop from them. 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This story takes place in the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama.  Maycomb is a small town with a clear-cut social structure.  There are those who work in professional occupations, such as Atticus, those who are self-reliant farmers, such as the Cunninghams, those who live off of others' charity, such as Bob Ewell, and the blacks who live in an area called the Quarters, just outside of town. 

The setting is very important because it sets up the major conflict in the plot:  Atticus must defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.  Most of the two will eventually believe the black man's story, as the chief witness for the State is Bob Ewell, a drunkard and unreliable source for information.  However, they are unwilling to vote their conscience in the jury room when it counts, as they are not ready to publicly accept the word of a black man over that of a white person, even when that white person is held in such low regard. 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on