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What does 'To Kill a Mockingbird' teach us about small town America in the 1930s?

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Introduction

What does 'To Kill a Mockingbird' teach us about small town America in the 1930s? Harper Lee's novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is set in the American Deep South in the mid-thirties. The story takes place in the small town of Maycomb in the state of Alabama, between 1933 and 1935. Through the young eyes of Jem and Scout Finch, we see Maycomb as a town steeped in prejudice. This manifests itself in several forms; against the black population, white women, new and different ideas and anyone who doesn't conform for example Boo Radley and Mr Raymond. It isn't just by the residents of Maycomb who are prejudiced, both the school and judicial systems are also discriminatory. It is Jem and Scout who introduce us to the backgrounds of the people and surrounding area. On the pretext of explaining what 'started it all', Scout gives us a detailed description of how her family, the Finch family came to be settled around Maycomb and 'Simon's homestead', Finch's Landing. But it is Dill's arrival from Meridian in the summer of '33 that allows Jem and Scout to give us further information about residents of Maycomb, in particular the Radley family. It is Dill's fascination with the Radley place and its inhabitants that furnishes us with our knowledge of their dramatic history, according to 'Neighbourhood legend'. Harper Lee uses the entrance of new characters in this case Dill and Miss Caroline, Scout's schoolteacher, to continue explaining social details and introducing people and their backgrounds. The children explain the manners and behaviour of both Walter Cunningham and Burris Ewell to Miss Caroline by their surnames: "He's one of the Ewells ma'am" To each of the children, who have grown up in Maycomb, this description is sufficient. Although the story is set entirely in Maycomb town, with a minimal reference outside the immediate area, Maycomb is typical of most small towns in the American South. ...read more.

Middle

It was a very basic system of learning employed to raise standards. Instead of encouraging advanced children like Scout, everybody was expected to be at the same basic level; " We don't write in the first grade, we print. You won't learn to write until you are in third grade." In Maycomb reputation and background are crucial for a good position in society. Aunt Alexandra has a "preoccupation with heredity". She "was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting of one patch of land the finer it was." Name, land, ownership and occupation are very important factors in Maycomb. People lived on the land of their ancestors. Atticus Finch was the first Finch to leave the Finch family homestead, Finch's Landing. He went to Montgomery to read law and Uncle Jack, his younger brother went to Boston to study medicine. Their sister Alexandra stayed at the Landing. Walter Cunningham's father was; "willing to go hungry to keep his land and vote as he pleased." The Ewells "had lived on the same plot of earth behind the Maycomb dump, and had thrived on country welfare money for three generations". While at school, we are introduced to Burris Ewell who was "the filthiest human I had ever seen". Twice during Scout's first day at school, someone is introduced by their surname only; Burris Ewell and Walter Cunningham. This shows the great influence that your surname had over you character. The type of person you were was pre-determined by your surname. Burris is introduced to Miss Caroline by Little Chuck Little; "He's one of the Ewells...disgrace of Maycomb". Scout says "there was indeed a caste system in Maycomb". This is clear from the way that; "the older citizens, the present generation of people who have lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shading, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time. ...read more.

Conclusion

Maybe things'll strike him as being- not quite right, say, but he won't cry, not when he gets a few years on him". This also shows how not all adults do not notice that things are "not quite right" but they don't do anything about it. Atticus explains to Jem why the jury found Tom Robinson guilty; "Atticus had used every tool available to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed". It is when Jem and Scout are trying to figure out the difference between them and Walter Cunningham. With child-like innocence Scout comes to the conclusion that there is "only one kind of folks. Folks". She can't see the difference between blacks and whites, Finches and Cunninghams, smart people and slow people. Jem, with his newly acquired wisdom says "I used to think that way when I was your age". Despite this, he can't answer his questions, "if there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other? If they're all alike, why do they go out their way to despise each other?". These are very natural questions and ones that can't be answered, even today. These questions form the basis of the book and the unjustness of the way Tom Robinson is treated. The new generation of Jem, Scout and Dill are much more open-minded than the older generation in Maycomb. "So far nothing in life has interfered with your reasoning", a father's words when trying to explain why men who are reasonable in everyday life become blind, prejudiced and unjust. Despite this, a change is occurring in the adults, it was a Cunningham who delayed the verdict. The mob that had tried to lynch Tom Robinson the night before was now partly responsible for the jury verdict taking so long. The change that is visible within the deep-set manners of the older generation is a sign that progress is on the way. ...read more.

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