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How Does Lee Present Maycomb and its People in To Kill a Mockingbird?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a first person narrative conveyed by the adult Jean Louise Finch who is
reflecting upon the events of her childhood growing up in the 1930s American South.
Maycomb is a fictional town fashioned deliberately by Lee in order to make her message
about prejudice more relatable. This way the 1960s readers of the novel (and those since)
take away the message and commit themselves to seeing the world a different way as
opposed to feeling that they are above the moral lesson this novel presents us with.
Maycomb is insular and traditional, the epitome of life in the American Deep South and a
reflection of Monroeville, Lee's own hometown. "Maycomb was an old town but it was a tired
old town when I first knew it." The inhabitants of Maycomb are resigned and pride has
succumbed to sullen existence. Set during The Great Depression, times are difficult for the
people of Maycomb. The narrator mentions that "it was hotter then" causing mules and black
dogs to suffer in the sweltering heat, giving Maycomb, to some extent, a primitive feel early
on. Despite this, social standards demand that men still wear stiff collars, even though they
"wilted by nine in the morning." Additionally women are forced to bathe twice a day as they
endeavour to preserve their ladylike demeanour. They are related to "soft teacakes with
frostings of sweat and sweet talcum" which reveals that women of that period were
essentially decorations, static and "sweet" and pale. Later in the novel Scout is warned that
the summer will be "a hot one" symbolising tension around the trial. The weather then plays a
role in sustaining the tension and pressure that the inhabitants experience.
In Maycomb your family name dictates your future and the expectations the town has about
you "excuse me ma'am, he's a Cunningham." Here Scout assumes that her teacher Miss
Caroline - a perfect example of the Southern Belle will understand her implication that a
Cunningham will not accept anything they are unable to pay back. The widespread acceptance
of these stereotypes suffocates individuals who are incapable of breaking free of the
constraints the society holds on them due to the reverence of the status quo which is rife.
Mayella Ewell who "looked as if she tried to keep clean" is still viewed as "white trash" simply
as a result of the actions of her drunken father.
Scout is constantly baffled by the overcomplicated social hierarchy, the class prejudice that is
intertwined within the layers that build up life and social expectations in Maycomb. The
comfortable yet not affluent Finches are at the top of the pyramid while the black community
sit at the bottom, segregation is widespread. Throughout the novel the black people are
presented in an entirely favourable light. It would not suit Lee's purpose to portray them as
immoral or untrustworthy, this is why the reader is informed of all their positive attributes. In
the trial Atticus says "some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral...but this is a truth that
applies to the human race..." Here he acts as a mouthpiece for Lee, articulating her views of
compassionate, logical reasoning. In some ways Lee's representation of the black community
is idealistic (they don't seem to drink, lie, gamble)
but this characterisation is perhaps a necessary one given by Lee to counteract the
stereotypes that at the time were associated with African Americans. In particular, Calpurnia's
industry, integrity and loyalty proves to the children and us that black people are not
necessarily an image of the institutionalised, stereotypical views held by white people.
In our first introduction to Maycomb Lee's personification of "the courthouse sagged in the
square" symbolises the `tired' American justice system, as exemplified in the Scottsboro' trial
of 1931 and later in the novel when the events of Tom Robinson's trial unfold. Despite the
glimmer of hope we are given when Atticus proves beyond all doubt that Tom could not have
raped Mayella Ewell, the blinding, paralysing racism that is a fact of life in Maycomb would
always overpower the truth. The people of Maycomb simply cannot move past their
preconceived ideas of black equals bad or dishonest. This is a place where white equals right
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Tom Robinson was "a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened
her mouth and screamed."
Furthermore, Maycomb is static. Many of the individuals we come across are "Maycomb
County born and bred." Situated away from the river and therefore any transport links,
society is stagnant and resistant to change both physically and emotionally. The President's
encouragement that the American population has "nothing to fear but fear itself" isn't wholly
comforting. The complacency of the community means that this reassurance is not fully