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The novel is set in the sleepy town of Maycomb, which, although a fictional town, is based on Monroeville, Alabama and is a perfect microcosm of the ways and culture of people during the 1930’s Depression. Maycomb was not on any major routes. It was “an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland” Harper Lee describes Maycomb as a “Tired old town”. The often-humid climate made summers almost unbearable, and the seasons couldn’t clearly be distinguished. It didn’t rain or snow often, (it hadn’t snowed since 1885). When it rained the streets turned to red slop. The town basically consisted of an oak tree-lined square with one main street. There was a courthouse, which sagged in the square and a jail “a miniature gothic joke one cell wide and two cells high”. There was also a newspaper office, a few general stores and a school, which was mainly populated by children from outlying farms. The coloured neighbourhood was behind the town dump, completely separated from the white community.
People rarely came and left Maycomb, because it was not on any major routes. It was the administrative centre of Maycomb County, but too far from the river to grow from commercial wealth.
The town grew “inward” according to Harper Lee, which, by 1933, led to a caste system in which people had become “utterly predictable” to each other. Atticus doesn’t believe one should judge people on what their backgrounds are like, and tries to teach Jem and Scout this. But when Aunt Alexandra arrived she “fitted into the world of Maycomb like a hand into a glove.”
Some families in town were respectable, and others weren’t. For example, no matter how poor the Cunninghams were, they still had standards. If they borrowed some money, or someone did a job for them, they would always pay them back. If they could not afford to pay them in money, they would pay them in kind. For example, when Atticus advised Mr Cunningham on his entailment, he paid Atticus with Hickory Nuts and stove wood. When Walter Cunningham doesn’t have any lunch, he refuses to borrow a quarter off Miss Caroline because he knows he can’t pay her back.
The Negro community made payments in kind after Atticus defended Tom Robinson. They too couldn’t afford to pay him in real money, so chose to use a different kind of payment.
On the other hand were the Ewells, who were categorised as “white trash”. This meant that they were so poor that they were despised almost as much as the Negroes. Their only advantage in life was their white skin. They hated the blacks because they loathed being likened to them. The Ewells didn’t really make an effort to be clean and respectable, and were considered to be little better than Negroes. The one exception in the family was Mayella Ewell, who attempted to break the stereotype by keeping clean and growing geraniums in the garden.
All over the town people are suffering from the Great Depression, as it is causing unemployment and hardship. Children brought their lunches to school in Molasses buckets, and some children didn’t have shoes, which caused them to contract hookworm. The Finches, although poor, were one of the richest families in town. The Farmers, such as the Cunninghams, had been hit hardest by the depression.
Religion was an important factor in the life of the town, with “foot washers”, on the way to buy supplies, going through the streets imposing their ideas and ideals on people. The beliefs about how one should live ones life leads to narrow minded bigotry. Nothing was kept private in Maycomb, as there was rumour and gossip being spread continually. Stephanie Crawford was the main gossip of the town. It was she who spread rumours about Boo Radley, and made him out to be some kind of monster, who ate cats and squirrels, when, in reality, he was just a man who was ashamed of his past actions and preferred to stay indoors.
The town’s coloured neighbourhood lay behind the dump, where the Negroes lived separately from the whites. They had built a separate church (‘First Purchase’), which the Negroes attended every Sunday. The only time the whites and the Negroes mixed was through employment. Link Deas, a local plantation owner, employed coloured workers as pickers, and most professional families in Maycomb had black cooks, maids or gardeners.
They could not rise in status, as they could not be educated, so they were only good for manual work. They were paid badly.
Maycomb’s Negroes were generally depicted as decent people, undeserving of their low regard and status. Calpurnia was employed by the Finches, and had been employed by the Finches ever since she could remember. Atticus was very respectful towards her, and throughout the book he made clear that she was very important to the Finch family. For example Atticus said, “She’s a faithful member of this family”. Calpurnia could also read. Zeebo, Calpurnia’s son, was the town garbage collector. He could also read, and was a respectable member of the Negro community. Reverend Sykes was the preacher at First Purchase. Tom and Helen Robinson were shown in a positive light, as Tom helped Mayella, and did all he could to help anyone. Helen worked for Link Deas, and was respectable and hardworking. The only Negro who showed resentment towards white people was Lula, and this was probably because of the way white people treated Negroes. ‘First purchase’ church was described as ‘An ancient paint-peeled frame building, the only church in Maycomb with a steeple and bell, called First Purchase because it was paid for from the first earnings of freed slaves’ ‘First purchase was unceiled and unpainted within. Along its walls unlighted kerosene lamps hung on brass brackets; pine benches served as pews. Behind the rough oak pulpit a faded pink silk banner proclaimed ‘God is love’, the churches only decoration except a rotogravure print of Hunt’s The Light of the World. There was no sign of piano, organ, hymn-books, church programmes-the familiar ecclesiastical impedimenta we saw every Sunday.’ They were obviously poor, but had made the most of what they had. Much like Mayella Ewell, they couldn’t help what they were, but they tried to change how they lived, and what kind of people they were. They weren’t treated with any respect, but still did their utmost to make something of themselves, despite other people’s opinions of them. The Negroes, much like the Ewells, lived in small houses, which were scantly furnished, but the Negroes were much cleaner. Whilst the Ewells were described as very dirty, and that they lived like animals, the Negroes obviously kept clean, as shown when Calpurnia took Jem and Scout to church. Scout described the smell of the clean Negroes. “Hearts of love hairdressing mingled with asafoetida, snuff, Hoyt’s Cologne, Brown’s Mule, peppermint and lilac talcum.” The Ewells, in reality were much worse people, and had a lower quality of life than the Negroes, but were placed slightly above them in the social hierarchy because of the colour of their skin. The Negroes were comparable to Mayella Ewell.
Black people at the time were treated as third-rate citizens, especially in the southern States, below the Dixie line. This is because they were brought over from Africa around 1850, to work as slaves. In 1850, 3,442,264 slaves lived in the slave states. 3,204,077 of them were slaves who had been brought and sold by white men. The fact that they had been brought to America to be slaves gave the white men reason to treat them as inferiors.
Negroes at the time were very superstitious. For example, it says “a Negro wouldn’t pass the Radley house at night” Their superstition is due to their African heritage, which they obviously hadn’t lost, and had been passed down from generation to generation. The Negroes were particularly scared of Boo Radley, as they wouldn’t pass his house at night, and when they did they passed on the other side of the road and whistled as they did so. Also, the white people were of the opinion that the Negroes, as well as Stephanie Crawford, made up the myths about Boo Radley. When Jem explained to Miss Maudie about the Boo Radley stories, she said, “That is three-fourths coloured folks and one part Stephanie Crawford.” They probably did this because they were very scared of him, as were Jem, Scout and Dill. The fear was probably exaggerated even more because of the way the Negroes were treated in society. The Negroes were also superstitious about Hot Steams- a hot place on a deserted road, which was said to be somebody who had died, but couldn’t get to heaven. Jem told Scout about these and said that to avoid having your breath sucked out by one, you must say a rhyme: “Angel-bright, life-in-death; get off the road, don’t suck my breath”. Scout said that Calpurnia had told her that that was “nigger-talk”
Between 1861 and 1865 the northern and southern states fought a civil war between each other, and the north won. An outcome of this was that all black slaves were made free men. Although this gave black people freedom, most southern whites still detested them as they had before they had become free. Alabama was known as a ‘cotton state’, which meant it had a high proportion of slaves working on the cotton plantations, and the state depended highly on cotton for its economy.
Whites and blacks were separated by the ‘colour bar’. They had to sit separately on buses, and weren’t entitled to a proper education, relying on their parents to teach them. Only a few Negroes could actually read. In the novel, Zeebo and Calpurnia were two of these.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1867, after the South was defeated in the civil war, and was an organisation that aimed to prevent the blacks from ever enjoying freedom. To achieve this aim, they used extremely violent methods. For example, over 300 people were murdered in the parishes outside New Orleans in 1871. Members of the Klan, although seemingly full of courage, hid their faces with large white hoods, and wore long white cloaks, possibly to avoid being publicly known as a member. The Klan’s influence faded by the turn of the century, but activity was still recorded in the 1920s. In the 1920s Alabama was an area of Ku Klux Klan activity, notably in Birmingham. The people of the town made reference to the KKK in the book. By the 1920s the KKK had become so powerful that they could elect Klansmen as members of parliament, and in the Southern states police were often reluctant to convict them of even serious crimes such as murder.
Many people in Maycomb would have had the same opinions as the KKK, with the same hatred and intolerance. This racism was continued because people were brought up thinking and believing that blacks were inferior, and therefore bringing their children up to think the same. One example was Mrs Dubose, who was extremely prejudiced against blacks. This was probably because she grew up when slavery was in existence and if you see them as inferiors all of your life then it is very hard to change at such an old age. Atticus chooses to admire Mrs Dubose’s courage rather then her faults.
There was much hypocrisy in Maycomb, and in the southern states during the 1930s. In the book, Miss Gates and Mrs Merriweather (at Aunt Alexandra’s Missionary Circle) show this hypocrisy. Miss Gates is a hypocrite because, although she persecutes the Negroes of America, she condemns the actions of Hitler against the Jews. She thought that the Negroes were getting “way above themselves” and didn’t realise that what she was doing was much the same as what Hitler was doing. Scout recognised the hypocrisy but no body could relate to her, as nobody except the Finches realised it was wrong. Mrs Merriweather was a hypocrite because she has extreme sympathy for the Mrunas, a black tribe, who were being helped by J. Grimes Everett, “Not a single white person’ll go near ‘em but that saintly J. Grimes Everett.” But she criticises the work of her black maid, saying, “There’s nothing more distracting than a sulky darky”. She was also of the opinion that she was doing Sophy (her Negro maid) a favour by employing her. “It’s never entered that wool of hers that the only reason I keep her is because the depression’s on and she needs her dollar and a quarter every week she can get it”
Mrs Farrow was of the opinion that the Negroes were dangerous: “Looks like we’re fighting a losing battle…We can try to educate ‘em till we’re blue in the face, we can try till we drop to make Christians out of ‘em, but there’s no lady safe in her bed these nights.” These were unfounded statements to make, and the only reasons she said anything was because she saw the Negroes as untrustworthy, because of her prejudices.
There were a few people in Maycomb who didn’t share racist views. These people were Atticus, Jem, Scout, Maudie Atkinson, and Dolphus Raymond. Atticus raised Jem and Scout so that they evaded these views. Maudie Atkinson probably isn’t racist because she doesn’t want to be a hypocrite. She doesn’t like the way the foot-washers are treating her because of who she is, and so she won’t treat the Negroes badly because of their colour. The fact that she is criticised about the way she lives shows that there is also religious bigotry in Maycomb. She represents common sense Maycomb. She, as well as Atticus, is the person the children go to when they want a question answering. She never exaggerates things, and she tells the children the truth about Arthur Radley to balance out Stephanie Crawford’s defamatory gossip. She also helps the children to discover their father’s strengths and qualities. Dolphus Raymond actually enjoys the company of the Negroes much more than the whites. So that he isn’t criticised for this, he pretends to be drunk. “I try to give ‘em a reason you see? It helps folks if they can latch onto a reason.” He pretends to be drunk because it will give the prejudiced townsfolk a reason for his actions. They do not believe that a man would enjoy the company of Negroes unless he had a problem of some kind. Link Deas is, to some extent, tolerant of the Negroes. He offers them jobs on his plantation and he defends Tom Robinson in court.
Mr Underwood is reputed to despise Negroes, but the reports in his newspaper never show his prejudices. He was also prepared to help Atticus on the night of the trial. He could also be a victim of society, wanting to treat Negroes as equals and not to be so discriminative, but realising that this wasn’t possible because of the attitudes of the townsfolk. He compared the shooting of Tom Robinson to the senseless slaughter of songbirds. This shows that he thought of Tom Robinson as a hardworking person who didn’t deserve to die and hadn’t done anything wrong. The rest of Maycomb, however, were unimpressed by his editorial. Mr Underwood appeared to act as though he hated Negroes because he didn’t want to be seen as an enemy to the white people of Maycomb.
In the 1930s, blacks started to rebel against their ill treatment. A movement called the Harlem Renaissance was created, but this died out when world war two broke out in 1939. Some good of this came as Franklin Roosevelt appointed over 100 African Americans to admistrative positions. The civil right struggle began again in the 1950s. As a result, the civil rights acts of 1957, 1964, 1965 and 1968 were passed, giving blacks far more equality with whites. The white southerners were extremely bitter about this, but today blacks are generally treated as equals, with just a few exceptions.
Arthur (AKA Boo) Radley was the second ‘mockingbird’ in the novel. He, as well as Tom Robinson, was the victim of the small-minded thinking that sometimes prevailed in Maycomb. Arthur had a life of isolation because he was ashamed of his past.
When he was younger, as legend had it, he had become part of ‘the nearest thing to a gang ever seen in Maycomb’ They were charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, assault and battery, and using abusive and profane language in the presence and hearing of a female, and found guilty. The rest of the group were sent to industrial school, which was ‘no prison and no disgrace’. Mr Radley, Arthur’s father decided against sending his son to the school, and promised the judge that Arthur would never get into any trouble again. Arthur was locked inside the house with the shutters closed, and wasn’t seen for fifteen years. All of the other boys received the best secondary education to be had.
Boo was a good person, emotionally damaged by his Father’s actions. He was made out to be some kind of bogeyman by people such as Stephanie Crawford, the town gossip, and was a source of fear for the children. “Miss Stephanie Crawford said she woke up in the middle of the night one time and saw him lookin’ straight through the window at her…said his head was like a skull lookin’ at her.” This was an idea Jem got from Stephanie Crawford. She had made his appearance scary, and made out that he ate raw animals. “He dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were blood-stained. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.” This was the impression that Jem pieced together from gossip. In actual fact he looked fairly normal, apart form some obvious signs of being inside for an eternity. His hands were described as “ so white they stood out garishly against the dull cream wall in the dim light of Jem’s room.” His face was similarly pale: “ His face was as white as his hands, but for a shadow on his jutting chin. His cheeks were thin to hollowness; his mouth was wide; there were shallow, almost delicate indentations at his temples, and his grey eyes were so colourless I thought he was blind. His hair was dead and thin, almost feathery on top of his head.”
Jem, Scout and Dill had heard scary stories about him. For example the story about Boo ramming scissors into Mr Radley’s leg. They had created plays about him. They made the plays more exaggerated than they were already, so they obviously considered him dangerous. Scout was worried about the plays, because Boo might attack them, but Jem used it as proof that he was not afraid of him. Atticus disapproved of these activities.
He was a symbol of goodness swathed in an initial shroud of creepiness. He left presents for the children, and saved Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell’s cowardly attack. He was a ‘mockingbird’ because he had been cruelly gossiped about when all he wanted to do was be a good person and help the children. At the end of the novel, when he saves Scout and Jem, Scout realises what it is like to ‘stand in someone’s shoes and walk around in them’ and she does so with Arthur Radley.
Mayella Ewell was 19 years old. She was considered “white trash” (only marginally better than black) to many people in Maycomb. This was because of her background. She accused Tom Robinson, a Negro, of raping her. She accused Robinson because she was ashamed to feel desire for him, with the current attitudes towards Negroes.
Tom Robinson helped her and she yearned for him until one day when she decided to hug him and kiss him on his cheek. Mr Ewell saw this and Mayella realised that if she didn’t accuse Robinson of rape, then the whole town would eventually hear about how she came on to a black man and she would be even more hated than she already was. She had no other choice but to accuse him of rape. She was a victim of circumstance.
She lived in a ‘Shotgun shack’ behind the towns garbage dump. She was poor and the Ewell family lived off what ever they could find in the dump. The front garden looked like “the playhouse of an insane child”, with a jumble of worthless junk scattering the yard. The only things in the garden that were nice were some “brilliant red” geraniums, which Mayella herself grew.
Physically, she was “a thick bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labour.” She also looked as though she tried to keep clean, unlike the rest of the Ewell family.
Mayella lived with her family of seven brothers and sisters and her father, Bob. She was the eldest of the children. She was the main carer of the children and looked after herself fairly well. She tried to keep clean, unlike the rest of the Ewell family, who were extremely dirty. Scout describes Burris Ewell as “the filthiest human I had ever seen”. Mayella tried to make the best of her life, by growing geraniums in the garden. She obviously had standards. She was relied on a great deal in the Ewell family, as Mr Ewell often went out to the swamp and returned days later, ill. Mr Ewell was depicted as an alcoholic and the book implied that when drunk, he often became violent.
Her family was lacking education and standards. Mayella had only two or three years of schooling and none of the other children had had any formal education. The reason for this was, ‘with two members of the family reading and writing, there was no need for the rest of them to learn-Papa needed them at home.’ The Ewell family had a tradition of turning up for the first day of the first grade, and then never turning up again. The Ewell family had been the “the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations. None of them had done an honest days work in his [Atticus’] Recollection.” “They lived like animals”. The people of Maycomb bent the rules for the Ewells. They allowed Mr Ewell to hunt out of season, and the children didn’t have to attend school. They did this so that the children had food, as Mr Ewell spent all his relief checks on green whisky.
Mayella isn’t used to being treated with respect. For example, when Atticus called her ma’am, she was offended and said, “I won’t answer a word you say as long as you keep on mockin’ me” She obviously had never been treated with such respect and politeness before and mistook it for mockery. She also didn’t have any friends, as when Atticus asked her if she had any friends she thinks he is making fun of her again “You makin’ fun o’me agin, Mr Finch?” This proves that she didn’t have any friends and that she is quite lonely because all she has are seven younger brothers and sisters and her alcoholic father.
Her family was a typical ‘white trash family’, but she tried to break the stereotype by keeping standards. She was basically a good person but a victim of circumstance.
Atticus Finch was a respected lawyer, and the father of Jem and Scout. He was a 50-year-old widower. Atticus was an epitome of moral character. He was the man with the most reason, courage and common sense and he showed fairness and bravery in defending a Negro in an unfair trial. He stood against the prejudice and ignorance in his community by doing this. Many would say he was a hero. He recognised the town’s bigotry and hypocrisy and tried to raise his children free of these. Many people throughout the community, however, saw him as an incompetent father, as his children were seen to lack discipline and guidance.
Some descriptions of Atticus’s physical appearance appear throughout the book:
“He was nearly blind in the left eye. Whenever he wanted to see something really well he turned his head and looked through his right eye. “He never went hunting, he didn’t play poker, or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the living room and read.” He was a thinker rather than a doer.
Other characters opinions of him varied. Scout considered him weak and boring “ Atticus was feeble…He didn’t do anything”. She was obviously disappointed in her father as other fathers smoked, drank and went hunting, and had jobs at interesting places. Jem respects his father and sees him as a role model: “Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!” The children discovered that Atticus had a hidden talent in chapter 10, when they found out he was “The deadest shot in Maycomb county”. Scout then respected him much more than before but Jem’s opinion of him didn’t change: “I wouldn’t care if he couldn’t do anything- I wouldn’t care if he couldn’t do a blessed thing” Maudie Atkinson considered him more educated than most: “If your fathers anything he’s civilised in his heart.” After the trial, the Negro community were extremely grateful to him and respected him greatly for what he did for Tom Robinson. “This was all ‘round the front steps when I got here this morning. They ‘preciate what you did Mr Finch” Quote made by Calpurnia about the food from the Negro community. Whilst most people respected him, some opposed him vigorously. “Your fathers no better than the niggers and trash he works for!” Mrs Dubose shouted at the children once. This offended the children but Atticus just blamed it on her being old fashioned. She probably saw slavery and there was no way of changing her opinions.
Atticus has varied opinions on certain themes in the book. The obvious opinion that he shows is the quote that the title is based on. This is about rifles but can obviously be used on many subjects in the book, for example Tom Robinson and racism. “Shoot all the blue jays you want…but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” What Atticus means by this is that blue jays are always causing trouble so it is ok to shoot them, but all mockingbirds do is imitate other birds and produce beautiful song.
Atticus disapproves of juries, claiming that once someone is in a jury box, they lose all common sense and fairness, “There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads- they couldn’t be fair if they tried.” He is saying that men don’t stop to think about fairness and justice, just about seeing a black man be punished, if they are innocent or not. On prejudice, Atticus was aware that black people would soon become free men, and there would be equal rights and statutes.
He knew that once this happened, whites would pay for their racism. “Don’t fool yourself- its all adding up and one day you’re gonna pay the bill for it.” He is obviously the only person who knows this, as the others carry on irrespective of what might happen in the future. Atticus has a good understanding of other people because he uses a simple trick. “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of people- you never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This shows that Atticus is tolerant of other people and can understand them well. He is trying to teach Jem and Scout a valuable lesson: not to judge people on what they seem to be like. On courage, Atticus also wanted to teach his children a lesson. He did this by making Jem and Scout go and read to Mrs Dubose, fighting her morphine addiction. “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” Atticus is a very sensible man and knows that people who have guns are really just cowards. Even though Mrs Dubose had said nasty thing about him in the past, he still respected her. Finally, he made a good comment on free will. “A mob is always made up of people, no matter what.” This is saying that you can’t blame anything but people for lynching and mobs. Also, groups of people have more strength and courage than just one person, but most of the courage is false, made from alcohol and the knowledge that they are anonymous if they are in a mob.