Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

How do historical references, such as the Great Depression, KKK, and Roosevelt's election, impact the characters in To Kill A Mockingbird?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To Kill a Mockingbird very much captures the flavor of the Depression era of the 1930s. All of American culture was reeling from the shock of economic collapse. Suddenly most people had far less money than they used to, often through bank failures and job loss. That sense of money being tight permeates the book. We do know that while financially solvent, Atticus is not exactly swimming in wealth. This lack of resources impacts Dill, Scout, and Jem, as they have to make their own experience, and so become interested in Boo—and Scout and Jem are excited by things like getting a stick of gum from him:

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. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

The tight economics make life tougher on everyone: under these circumstances, people are less likely to want to embrace social change that might threaten what little they have.

Civil Rights are in the air in a small way too, and this, by implication, has stiffened the determination of the white Maycomb community to make sure racial hierarchies are maintained. As Mrs. Merriweather, one of the voices of orthodoxy in the town, says:

I think that woman, that Mrs. Roosevelt’s lost her mind—just plain lost her mind coming down to Birmingham and tryin’ to sit with ‘em. If I was the Mayor of Birmingham I’d—

Mrs. Merriweather is alluding to Mrs. Roosevelt sitting with blacks. This impacts people like the Finches because the some of the community is quite condemning and disapproving of Atticus' robust defense of Tom. With nothing else to do but follow the trial and with whiffs of change in the air the atmosphere surrounding the trial is thus volatile.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the exposition of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee introduces the setting of the Great Depression, especially in Chapter Two in the passage in which Scout asks her father if they are as poor as the Cunninghams.  Atticus tells her that professional people are poor because the farmers are poor and cannot pay them for their services.  This is why Mr. Cunningham pays Atticus in potatoes; the little cash that he has goes towards paying the mortgage on his farm because Mr. Cunningham is too proud to take a government aid job provided by President Roosevelt's W.P.A. program (Works Progress Administration). The Ewells, by contrast, are not too proud to receive Relief checks and not work.  This contrast reveals much about the character of Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Ewell.

The allusion to the K.K.K. suggests the Jim Crow South in which Tom Robinson is tried.  His trial, in fact, reflects the real life one of Emmett Till in which white men, tried before an all white jury, were acquitted of killing a black boy.  In the reverse situation, Tom Robinson, also tried by an all-white male jury in the Jim Crow South stands little chance of an acquittal.  The criticism and hatred toward Atticus is a reflection of the conventional thinking of the time.  Atticus is labeled a "n---lover."

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial