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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee




To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Maycomb County, an imaginary district in southern Alabama. The time is the early 1930s, the years of the Great Depression when poverty and unemployment were widespread in the United States. For parts of the deep South like Maycomb County, the Depression meant only that the bad times that had been going on for decades got a little bit worse. These rural areas had long been poor and undeveloped. Black people worked for low wages in the fields. White farmers were more likely to own land, but they were cash poor. It was common for children to go to school barefoot, and to suffer from ringworm and other diseases. Although automobiles had been around for some years, most farm families still depended on horses for transportation and to plow their fields.

Scout's family, the Finches, belong to the elite of local society. Atticus Finch is an educated man who goes to work in a clean shirt. The family owns a nice house and can afford to hire a black housekeeper. Still, the Finches are well-off only in comparison with the farm families who live in the same county. They, too, have little money.

Instead of bringing people together, the shared experience of poverty seemed to contribute to making the South more class-conscious than other parts of the country. One reason why people like Scout's Aunt Alexandra place so much importance on family background and "gentle breeding" is that these concepts were just about all that could be counted on to separate a family like the Finches from the truly poor. The advantages of education, a professional career, and owning one's own home did not last long if a family happened to have a run of bad luck. The fear that the family's position could only get worse, never better, helped to turn some people into social snobs.

You will notice that none of the characters in this story takes much interest in the world beyond Maycomb County. When Scout's class studies current events in school, most of the children are not even sure what a "current event" is. Even the adults seem to take little interest in such developments as the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt or the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. People seldom travel far from their homes. And they almost never eat a meal in a restaurant, even a cheap restaurant. When Dill eats in a diner, this is enough to make him a minor celebrity in Scout's eyes.

Of course, the most important difference between the South of the 1930s and the South today is that in the 1930s a system of segregation was in force. Blacks and whites were forbidden by law to mix in schools, in movie theaters, or on trains. They could not use the same rest rooms or drink from the same water fountains. Blacks had very little opportunity to get an education. Many kinds of jobs were not open to them. Black people were not allowed to vote. Nor could they serve on juries, not even when the defendant was a black man. Any black person (and, for that matter, any white) who challenged the system of segregation publicly would have been in serious danger of being killed by prosegregation fanatics. In fact, segregation was taken so much for granted that it is not even described in the novel in so many words. Not even Atticus Finch, the character who represents idealism and a devotion to justice, ever attacks the basic system of segregation. Nevertheless, just because Atticus believes a black man's word over a white man and woman's, many people in Maycomb feel that he is undermining the system that keeps whites on top of the social order.

By the time To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 segregated school had been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and the struggle for civil rights in the South was underway. At this time, the South had a very bad reputation in the eyes of the world. White people in other parts of the United States tended to feel superior to the bigots of the deep South. In many cases, they had not yet been forced to confront the fact that racial prejudice existed all over the country, even though elsewhere it took less obvious forms.


ECC [To Kill a Mockingbird Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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