What is the function of relating the Finch family history at the outset of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird?
In this book, the setting is just as important as any of the characters. By relating the Finch family history, Scout gives us a clear picture of the customs and mindsets of Maycomb, Alabama.
The first chapter of the book is unique in that it describes a serious event (Jem breaking his arm), and then goes on to describe the entire family history of the Finches. One of the things we learn as we read the book is that family history means everything to some people in Maycomb. It is that deep-seated sense of tradition that makes it so hard to overcome prejudice.
When an older Jem and Scout look back on the events that shaped the most meaningful part of their childhood, Scout considers family history a large part of what happened.
I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn't? (ch 1)
The Finches are considered an important family because although they can’t trace their roots back to the Battle of Hastings, they have had the same land for a long time. Later, Aunt Alexandra convinces Atticus to instill family pride in his children. He tries to explain “the facts of life” to Scout and Jem.
Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was. (ch 13)
Clearly, Atticus has taught his children that people should be judged by their character, while Alexandra believes they should be judged by their social class. This is an important aspect of Southern culture that is crucial to an understanding of the book.