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...
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.