The Role of Setting in to Kill a Mockingbird

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 964 |

Pages: 2|

5 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 964|Pages: 2|5 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

'Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.” This is the first description that Harper Lee gives of the small Alabama town featured in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. In Maycomb, protagonist Jean Louise (or Scout) Finch and her brother Jem’s innocent childhood is brutally disrupted when their father Atticus, a lawyer, unsuccessfully defends an innocent black man against accusations of rape. In this tale of equality and justice, the setting is essential in allowing the Finch children to grow and learn from the trial, characterizing the novel as gothic, and shaping the beliefs of the citizens of Maycomb.

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Mockingbird’s setting helps shape the book as a Bildungsroman (a piece of literature that follows a character’s progression from childhood into adulthood). Scout’s childhood is generally a happy one, despite the economic recession. She and Jem go to school, play around, sip lemonade on their porch… The one major event that disturbs this peaceful childhood is Tom Robinson’s trial. However, children living in other parts of the country had drastically different experiences. The Great Depression was in full blow: people living in large cities struggled to make a living. Children were sometimes sent away to live with relatives, as their parents could no longer provide for them. In the prairie States, families had to leave their farms and live on the road due to debt and dust storms that destroyed lands. Since the Finches do not live in those regions, Atticus is quite well off, and his children are far from miserable. Thus, Tom Robinson’s trial is able to occupy a large importance in Scout and Jem’s lives, instead of hardships like poverty and hunger. Mockingbird also mirrors many aspects of the author’s life. Lee was born and lived in Alabama, just like Scout. Her father and Atticus were both lawyers who defended black clients, to no avail. Setting Mockingbird in Maycomb makes the trial a clear turning point in the characters’ lives, and makes it more believable, as it is directly inspired by Lee’s own childhood.

Mockingbird’s setting also influences the overall mood and atmosphere. It classifies the book as a work of Gothic literature, or more specifically, part of the American subgenre of Southern Gothic. Gothic literature is defined by horror and the grotesque; defining works include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Southern Gothic includes the same unpleasing elements, but with two major differences. These works take place in the South of the US, and they tend to be more realistic and dissect social issues. Maycomb is typical of Southern Gothic: decaying and somewhat disturbing. “In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square.” One family, the Ewells, are the epitome of grotesque. They live in a dump. Their house is dirty, greasy, and patched together with whatever they can find. Cheesecloth keeps vermin from entering. Indeed, Maycomb’s eerily qualities set an atmosphere for this gothic tale.

The time period in which a story takes place is also part of the setting. In Mockingbird, historical context is used to explain the Maycomb citizens’ mindsets. The novel takes place during the 1930’s, the beginning of a transitional period for social justice. Slavery had been abolished since 1865, and yet, black people were still not considered equal to whites. In Maycomb, the black community’s houses and church are segregated from the rest of the town, and many citizens have racist attitudes towards African-Americans. One woman believes black people and white people should not marry each other. However, things are slowly beginning to change. In the previous decade, the Harlem Renaissance movement had begun, and jazz, a typically African-American style of music, had gained tremendous popularity. Black people were starting to express themselves and speak out through their art. They were slowly gaining acceptance in society. In Mockingbird, this change is shown in the townspeople that support Tom Robinson: when Jem asks who did a single thing to help Tom, Miss Maudie replies: “… people like us. People like Judge Taylor. People like Mr. Heck Tate.” Atticus, as a lawyer does the largest part in defending Tom. The jury takes longer than usual to decide on the guilty verdict, a sign that there has been a shift in people’s mindsets. This period also saw the beginning of feminism. Women were given the right to vote in 1920. In large cities, some women began to go out partying, smoking, and engaging in other behaviours traditionally considered masculine. In Mockingbird, Scout, who prefers pants over dresses and enjoys playing with boys, represents a desire to break free from traditional female roles. Miss Maudie, for her part, lives alone and plants flowers, despite the complaints of “foot-washers” that to do so is unholy. She even verbally refutes these people who believe “women are a sin by definition”. Yet most were still confined and limited within society. The conservative Aunt Alexandra continues to wear a corset despite the discomfort it causes. Even Calpurnia, the Finches’ cook, who usually lets Scout wear pants, makes her dress up in a pink frilly dress when she takes her to the black church. The people of Maycomb’s opinions reflect how, in this particular period of time, opinions regarding social justice were contrasting, and progressive ideas started to appear.

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When one considers that location and time create the Finch children’s greatest childhood crisis, give the book its defining gothic characteristics, and shape its characters, it is clear that setting is a crucial part of Mockingbird. Many praise the memorable characters and the thought-provoking issues of race and class in this novel, but the setting is equally as fascinating and relevant. Just as one cannot plant crops without soil, To Kill a Mockingbird would not be complete without 1930’s Maycomb.   

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Role Of Setting In To Kill A Mockingbird. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
“The Role Of Setting In To Kill A Mockingbird.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
The Role Of Setting In To Kill A Mockingbird. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Nov. 2023].
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