Maycomb is a small, isolated, inward looking town in Alabama, USA. The reader hears about Maycomb from the narrator, Scout (Jean-Louise Finch), who looks back to when she was a young girl living with her brother Jem and their father Atticus. Throughout the novel, you hear about a very wide range of incidents and relationships in Maycomb, which is quite surprising for such a small town where Atticus,
‘was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family’.
With a child narrating, a much more unconventional, naïve perspective is shown. It also means that the novel can take advantage of two different view points, which are years apart, to give a much more complete picture. Scout often relates to incidents that occurred in Maycomb that she does not fully understand. A prime example of this is when Jem grasps, a long time before Scout, that the items found in the tree by the Radley Place are presents from Boo to them. Scouts incomprehension of Maycomb and its on goings also add an element of humour to the novel; an impression that only the reader gains. For example when Maycomb is described in the first paragraph, Scout comically tells of female behaviour in Maycomb, as she is certain that she did not want to grow up like ‘soft teacakes’ and conform to society’s insistence that she behave ‘like a girl’ and wear a skirt. On the other hand, Harper Lee's language suggests an adult's recollection rather than a girl's experience when Scout says that,
‘Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it . . . Somehow, it was hotter then . . . People moved slowly then.’
These quotations also tell you more about the period that Maycomb was going through. It was the mid-1930’s, during a time of economic depression, and their only hope would come from Franklin D Roosevelt and his New Deal. Maycomb was already awash with poverty, partly shown by the new currency the Cunninghams were adopting, whereby a ‘bushel of potatoes is charged for the delivery of a baby. It is also shown in the novel on page 31 when Scout says that Little Chuck Little was another member of the population who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. Roosevelt, the American President at the time, wanted America to regain some prosperity from the Depression. Roosevelt was in some ways like Atticus Finch, as they were both willing and in a position to help people who had done no wrong. Atticus wanted to get Tom Robinson off the blame for the rape of Mayella Ewell, for which he was being unjustly victimised. The image of the Mockingbird first becomes clear here on page 96 as,
‘Mockingbird’s don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy’ . . . ‘That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’
The mockingbird image can therefore be linked to Tom Robinson and the Blacks who had done no harm to anyone, other than being ‘niggers’. Whichever way Tom acted when he was testifying in court, he would have seemed guilty in the eyes of the white jury. If he tried to defend himself against a white woman’s advances the situation would be seen to be of his making, and therefore his fault. If he ran, as he actually did, it would be taken as an admission of guilt. The novel therefore tells of how, in Maycomb it is accepted that the Whites can kill the Blacks but not the other way around. They were in impossible positions, where to Atticus, it looked as if the jury was killing a mockingbird by killing Tom Robinson and in the long term the death of a whole race.
The reader can deduce that the people who live in Maycomb had lived there all their lives and had had a large family network. This is shown by the way that each family is recognisable by definite characteristics as they are all stereotyped. The Haverfords in Maycomb County was ‘a name synonymous with jackass’, the Cunninghams were ‘an enormous and confusing tribe domiciled in the north part of the county’ who formed the ‘nearest thing to a gang ever seen in Maycomb’ and the Ewells had been ‘the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations’. The Ewells were even seen to be below the Negroes as they lived behind the town garbage dump in what was ‘once a Negro cabin’, but as the racial prejudice is so strong the Ewells word was taken, not the Blacks, and Tom Robinson convicted of the rape of Mayella Ewell.
In chapter two, Scout’s first day at school is described as not going smoothly as she is scolded by the new teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, for knowing how to read and write, and for speaking out in Walter Cunningham’s favour. Scout’s first day also brings about another impression of Maycomb that the reader learns from Jem when he says that,
‘Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college’.
The quotation shows how Miss Fisher is regarded with suspicion because of her origins. She came from a part of North Alabama that stayed loyal to the North during the Civil War and was quite different from Maycomb as it was industrial, Republican and because the people there had no ‘background’. Miss Fisher’s ‘foreignness’ is emphasised by her choice of story, as she does not appreciate that the majority of children come from a background that makes them ‘immune to imaginative literature’. The word ‘immune’ shows that the people of Maycomb regard some things as so foreign and threatening to their way of life, that they are comparable with disease. The education system in Maycomb is therefore shown to be quite backward as not only does Miss Fisher have a hard time adjusting from her teaching in other counties to that of Maycombs but Burris Ewell only went to school on the ‘first day o’ the first grade fer three year now’ and so education is deemed by some to be unimportant and unnecessary.
The importance of ‘Maycomb’s principal recreation’ of going to church in the lives of the people in Maycomb is significant in the book, and it is interesting that Jem should point out that the only picture shows they ever get in Maycomb are ‘Jesus ones’. This is first sign of a possible relationship between people’s attitude towards religion and their attitude towards prejudice. This attitude is shown when Calpurnia, who was employed by Atticus as a cook, takes Scout and Jem to her Church. This ‘coloured’ Church is said to be used by ‘Negroes’ worshipping on Sundays and white men gambling on weekdays. This shows the blacks inferiority as the Whites are allowed in the Blacks’ Church, but the Blacks are not allowed in the Whites’ Church.
The visit to the church brings Calpurnia to centre stage. Her character serves as the bridge between two worlds, and the reader has a sense of the double life she leads, splitting her time between the Finch household and the black community. When she goes to church, her language changes, and she speaks in a ‘coloured’ dialect rather than the proper, precise language she uses in Atticus' household. Jem asks her why, and she explains that the churchgoers would think she was ‘puttin’ on airs to beat Moses’ if she spoke ‘white’ in church. This speech demonstrates the gulf between blacks and whites in Maycomb as not only are they separated by bigotry and class, but they also don't even speak the same language.
Overall Maycomb is therefore a ‘tired’ old town’ where little happens, though dangerous prejudices and tensions are always there. In Southern states such as Alabama, belief in the literal truth of the Bible is widely held, and many people in the novel are Methodists or Baptists. The reader gets the impression that Maycomb is a static population and newcomers are not accepted easily. Gossip and prejudice is rife, with not only the blacks being subjected to it, but also those who don’t conform in any way. For example the Radleys or Dolphus Raymond. The reason for why so much prejudice is still around could be due to the fact that things change very slowly in Maycomb, as what was important in the Civil War in 1861 is still important in 1933. The racism is summed up by the Sheriff who was meant to be neutral with both groups, when he says that he ‘hadn’t the heart to put him (Boo Radley as a child) in jail alongside Negroes’.