Narrative Elements: Setting—Time and Place

Setting — Time and Place


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.

mapInstead 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. Any African-American (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.

Activities Tasks
The story is set in a small town in southern Alabama during the Depression of the 1930s.
(a) What aspects of the story seem to be particular to that place and time?
(b) What aspects of the story are universal, cutting across time and place?
(c) In what ways are the people you know today similar to and different from those in Maycomb?
What kind of town is Maycomb, Alabama? What does the author's physical description of the town of Maycomb tell you about the people who live there? Notice especially the description of the town in Chapter 1.
Describe the background provided by the town of Maycomb to the events in the story. (Provide general observations concerning the town's geography and life style, the beliefs and values of the inhabitants, and the social class structure.)
What details about the town, its history and its inhabitants, make the place feel real?
"Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself".
(a) Explain the meaning of this observation in considering the nature of the general 'character' of Maycomb.
(b) How is the town itself sometimes responsible for events that occur in the story?
Does the insistence that Maycomb is a lazy town where nothing ever happens make you feel that something very ominous is going to occur before long? How can this be?
Setting can reveal character.
(a) How does the description of the Ewell household contribute to our understanding of the Ewell family's role in the novel?
(b) Choose another household described in the novel and discuss how it reflects their character.
One function of setting is the creation of atmosphere.
(a) Describe the different levels of atmosphere Lee creates through her descriptions of the Radley house?
(b) How is response to the African-American community affetced by the descriptions of their church, cemetry, and Quarters?
Descriptions of buildings are extremely important to the novel - both public buildings and private residences. Analyse these carefully. How does the look of a building reflect something of what goes on inside?
Using the textual clues Scout gives in the novel, create a map (using a software program on computer or art work) of her town, especially her street and the surrounding neighbourhood. Mark significant events in appropriate places.
Create a real estate brochure advertising land and houses for sale in Maycomb County. The advertisement is to extol the virtues of living in a small country town, emphasising the benefits of close knit communities and describing the simple, rustic environment.
Research rural towns in Alabama in the 1930s. Create a brochure (either on computer using a software program or art work) for an historical musuem, describing what it was like to live in such a town.