In To Kill A Mockingbird, what is the setting of the story? How does Harper Lee use the setting to set a tone?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Harper Lee's classic of American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird, tells the story, through the first-person narration of its young protagonist, Scout, of her and her brother Jem's coming of age in the American South during the 1930s. This is no ordinary decade in modern American history, and Lee's novel takes place in no ordinary setting. The 1930s were the years of the Great Depression, when unemployment levels were extraordinarily high and the American South remained mired in the racial policies and practices of the post-Civil War era. This combination of economic destitution and racial segregation is the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird, and this setting does indeed set the tone for the narrative that follows.

While Lee sets her novel in the very real American South, she uses a fictitious town in the state of Alabama as her setting. Maycomb serves as a template for the place and time in which To Kill a Mockingbird takes place. It is a small town with a poor population. As Scout describes her birthplace early in the novel:

Maycomb was a tired, old town back in those days. People moved slowly, ambling across the town square. Days seemed long, especially on hot summer days. People didn’t hurry, because there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, no money to buy it with, and nothing to see.

The socioeconomic situation in Maycomb permeates the story, and the racial animosities that provide a backdrop to the narrative are illustrated in the rape trial of Tom Robinson, a physically disabled African American man falsely accused of raping a white woman, who happens to be the grown daughter of Maycomb's most virulently racist embodiment of the poor white population. The racially-charged trial assumes a place of considerable prominence in Lee's novel because it is Scout's father, Atticus, a lawyer, who agrees to defend Tom in court. Atticus serves as the story's moral compass, carefully guiding his children through these difficult times with the patience and wisdom of a mythological figure, which he has, to a degree, become. In the beginning of chapter nine, Scout announces that she is ready to fight another child, Cecil Jacobs, because the latter decried that the former's father was defending the African American Tom Robinson:

I asked Atticus, “Do you defend niggers, Atticus?”
Atticus replied, “Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.”
“’s what everybody at school says.”
“From now on it’ll be everybody less one—“

This passage is indicative of the tone of To Kill a Mockingbird. This is, as noted, a coming-of-age story. It is also, though, an indictment of the racism that dominated Southern culture. Lee uses her setting to establish a tone of youthful innocence in the person of Scout, and racial animosities in the person of Bob Ewell, father of the girl who accuses Tom of rape.

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To Kill A Mockingbird is set in a small, southern town, Maycomb, Alabama, during The Great Depression of the 1930s. It is entrenched in tradition and families struggle to rise above their circumstances or even seem to want to. The mood is summed up  in the apt description of a place where 

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.

Atticus Finch, respected and educated, does everything he can to ensure an upbringing for his children that is not reflective of the mood or discriminatory beliefs of the many Maycomb residents who, in Atticus's words have "blind spots along with the rest of us." 

Taking place over the course of two years, mainly at the Finch's home, the school,the courthouse where the racial segregation is most obvious and the "black" part of town, emphasizes the extent to which the south protected its agricultural background, suspicious and reluctant of any attempts at industrialization, firmly believing in its southern values and "gentle breeding." Believing a "black man's word" seems preposterous as segregation was such an integrated part of life in the south. Even Atticus does not really challenge the basic system of segregation, only the beliefs. 

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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