What atmosphere does Harper Lee create in To Kill A Mockingbird?

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mrsjohnson12 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In terms of literature, atmosphere refers to the emotions that the author conveys through the setting or through objects in the story. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the atmosphere created by the narrative is particularly important to developing the characters’ personalities, understanding their interactions with others, and judging the decisions they ultimately make.

At the beginning of the novel, the description of Maycomb creates an atmosphere that is calm and steady. Maycomb is related as a “tired old town” where “people moved slowly…” (Lee 5). The town is one that has been untouched by time. Most of the citizens of Maycomb have lived there since birth, and their families have lived there for generations. The atmosphere is reflective of the townspeople’s reluctance to change in terms of prejudice. As a whole, the citizens of Maycomb are unwilling to accept anyone who does not fit in with the culture of their town. For example, the Radleys do not comply with the societal norms of the town: they “kept to themselves, a predilection unforgivable in Maycomb. They did not go to church, Maycomb’s principal recreation” (Lee 9). Because of these differences, the Radleys are gossiped about and even feared.

By the end of the novel, much like several of the characters, the atmosphere of Maycomb has changed into one of reflection and hopefulness. At this point in the book, Scout has walked Boo Radley home and is standing on his front porch. Boo, once ostracized and misunderstood, has just saved the lives of Jem and Scout. For the first time, Scout looks at her town through the eyes of Boo, and she reflects, “Street lights winked down the street all the way to town. I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle” (Lee 278). Scout’s new perspective displays one of the main themes of the book. The theme is that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (Lee 279). Standing on Boo Radley’s front porch, Scout is able to empathize with his life and better understand his perspective.

The changing atmosphere of To Kill a Mockingbird, from steady to hopeful, indicates that Maycomb has moved into a new era; one that will be more inclusive and understanding of others.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The first chapter of the book does an excellent job in setting the tone or atmosphere of the whole book. Here is what Lee says:

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 tone is that Maycomb is a sleepy town, where everyone knows everyone else, and nothing ever happens. To add to this, things don't change, and people certainly do not change. Things are just the way they are. 

As the book progresses, something does happen in Maycomb. There is a trial of a black man, Tom Robinson. He is unjustly accused and found guilty. We would think that people would be in an uproar at this, but Maycomb is Maycomb, calm and nothing ever happens. So, after the death of Tom, things go back to normal. People don't change and just go on with their lives. This is the sad reality of the the town. 

What makes people like Atticus and Miss Maudie so heroic is that they know this, but they are willing to try to bring change. This is courage - the ability to see the challenge, even though it is huge, and commit to a task, because it is the right thing to do. 

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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