What are some quotes that show family background is extremely important in To Kill A Mockingbird?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Social class and family background are very important in Maycomb, where everyone knows his or her place.

Family and tradition are very important in Maycomb.  Every family has a place, and everyone knows what that place is.  This is one of the reasons why Scout goes on and on about the history of her family in the beginning.  She is very explicit about it, explaining the Finch family’s heritage and Atticus’s background.  This is important in Maycomb.

Atticus gives Jem and Scout a lecture about the “facts of life" at the behest of Aunt Alexandra.  It is important to her that they know what being a Finch is, and the responsibilities it entails. 

"Your aunt has asked me to try and impress upon you and Jean Louise that you are not from run-of-the-mill people, that you are the product of several generations' gentle breeding-" (Ch. 13)

In fact, Scout has heard this before.  She has heard people comment about her father’s defense of Tom Robinson as something against his “breeding,” such as Mrs. Dubose’s angry racist tirade.

"Yes indeed, what has this world come to when a Finch goes against his raising? I'll tell you! …Your father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for!" (Ch. 11)

It is comments like this that confuse Scout.  She understands that her aunt wants her to wear dresses and pearl necklaces, but she doesn’t quite get the connection here.  She is too young to see that people consider her father a role model in the town, and therefore are disappointed when he defends Tom Robinson.

The race and class distinctions are something that Scout has encountered at school as well.  For example, the Ewell family is full of children, and they all only go to school on the first day.

"They come first day every year and then leave. The truant lady gets 'em here 'cause she threatens 'em with the sheriff, but she's give up tryin' to hold 'em. She reckons she's carried out the law just gettin' their names on the roll …” (Ch. 3)

The illiterate Ewells turn out to be important in Scout’s life because it is Mayella and Bob Ewell who charge Tom Robinson with rape, so they are on the other side of her father’s trial.  Through them, she sees the other side of social class.  

The Ewells contrast sharply with the Cunninghams, who are also poor but more respectably so, because they try to live within the confines of society.  Scout learns that even within class distinctions she should treat everyone with respect.  

"He ain't company, Cal, he's just a Cunningham-"
"Hush your mouth! Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house's yo' comp'ny, and don't you let me catch you remarkin' on their ways like you was so high and mighty! ..." (Ch. 3)

This lesson, taught by Cal, is echoed by Atticus.  Even when he tries to teach his children Alexandra's perception of Maycomb, he still believes that people are people.  It is through Atticus that Scout comes to realize that even though she is a Finch, this does not really make her better than anyone else.

Part of growing up is learning how you fit into the world.  This isn't always easy when the definition of right and wrong seems to vary depending on who is teaching you.  Scout has to learn whether to follow Atticus's view of the world, of Alexandra's as she grows up.  Fortunately for Scout, she chooses to side with Atticus.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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