To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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What is the function of relating the Finch family history at the outset of To Kill a Mockingbird?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Relating the family's history at the start of the book gives us an insight into what kind of people the Finches really are. In particular, Scout's historical digression introduces a theme that will come to take on a great deal of importance much later. Aunt Alexandra is a snob who genuinely believes that good breeding, as much as bad, is handed down through the generations. This is supposed to explain why some families in Maycomb, such as the Finches, are good, whereas others, like the Cunninghams and the Ewells, are thoroughly bad.

Alexandra's unique take on genealogy is complete nonsense, of course, not least because it's belied by the experience of her own family. Atticus and his brother left their ancestral home of Finch's Landing to study law and medicine, respectively. In doing so, they showed great initiative and a curiosity about the outside world. Aunt Alexandra, on the other hand, chose to stay put, displaying an altogether different, less adventurous side to the Finches. In other words, even in the oldest, most respectable families, there are often many different character traits flowing alongside each other.

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bullgatortail eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There are at least two good reasons: first, author Harper Lee wants to establish a strong historical background of the Finch family ancestry in her exposition during Chapter 1. She shows a connection between Finch's Landing and Maycomb, establishes that the Finches are among the oldest and most respected families in Maycomb, and illustrates the family's connection with the Radleys. Secondly, Harper introduces all of the major characters while employing the literary device of flashback to show that all of the events of the novel have happened in the past--

"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken..." (Chapter 1)

Scout's narration will be primarily in retrospect from a more adult perspective; we find that Jem, Scout and an elderly Atticus are all still alive when the story is being retold.

"We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. He said we were both right." (Chapter 1)

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