What do you learn about Maycomb, Alabama, in Chapter 1 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

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price7781 | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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In Chapter 1 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is remembering the past history of her family and what Maycomb was like for her as a young girl.  The time period in which the books takes place is really important because its setting is the Great Depression of the 1930's.  During this time, money is scare, jobs are few and far between, and families of all income levels are struggling to make it.  

Here is where Harper Lee's descriptions do such a great job in letting her readers "feel" the atmosphere of a lazy, southern town.  She describes the town as,

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. . . People moved slowly then.  They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything.  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.  But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people:  Maycomb Country had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Maycomb is a town indicative of other towns throughout this time period. It is worn out and old.  It is past its prime in commercial and economic growth, and is comprised mainly of life long residents like Mrs. Dubose and Aunt Maudie who have a history with the town.  People "amble" in Maycomb--life is slow, and there is no where to go and no money to spend.  Maycomb is probably a pretty boring place for most residents, but it is a way of life in which they are accustomed.  Luckily for Scout, she still finds joy playing with Jem and Dill and fighting other kids on the school playground.

What is really telling about Lee's description of the town is how she tells us that the courthouse is "sagging."  This could be symbolic of how the old laws and values of Maycomb and its people are not holding up.  The justice system for African Americans, like the sagging roof of the courthouse, has broken down.  We see this in the trial of Tom Robinson who is found guilty because he is black.  

At the end of the quote, Lee uses a famous part of a Franklin D. Roosevelt speech given in the 1930's during this economically depressing time about how we have "nothing to fear but fear itself."  The world is changing, and for the white people of Maycomb who have lived under a system of privilege and power, that is a scary concept.  In order to survive, the tired, old town of Maycomb will have to change its ways racially, politically, and socially. Hopefully, Atticus' fight for justice will lead the way and make Maycomb a better place to live.

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