Question: Analyse the connection between the setting and one or more themes.
In our present lives, our attitudes are determined by what surrounds us. What shapes your attitude? Harper Lee’s critically acclaimed bildungsroman ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ explores this idea of the setting and its relationship between a prominent theme in discrimination. Harper Lee utilises the macro setting of Maycomb, alongside its underlying micro settings of the First Purchase Church, the Missionary Circle, and the Maycomb Courtroom in a way which purposefully interlinks how the setting correlates to that of discrimination, which was rife in Maycomb’s society. The Maycomb Courtroom also doubles as the setting in which the character of Jem experiences his transition from childhood to adulthood. The inclusion/relation of these settings and ideas links back to the author’s original intention - to incite readers of both the past and present to consider their personal attitudes as well as beliefs.
The American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s-60’s was a significant time period in American history. Notable figures such as Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall were all instrumental in the fight for equity and racial equality within American society. Harper Lee composed ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in the 1950’s, during the heights of the Civil Rights Movement. Whilst she was not actively involved in peaceful, public demonstrations, the novel is representative of her own personal contribution towards an equal and just United States of America. However, despite many advancements, America still suffers from cases of racial injustice today.
In the opening moments of the novel, Harper Lee introduces the reader to the macro setting of Maycomb, Alabama. It is a place which, like all other towns in America at the time, is suffering from the Great Depression. Lee utilises the character of Scout effectively to provide the reader with an exposition of Maycomb, in which she describes it as an “old town, but it was a tired old town”. The use of adjectives such as “tired” and “old”, upon further analysis, inform the reader of the true nature of Maycomb. It is a town that is non-progressive, unwilling to advance in any way shape or form. This is derived from their history which is entangled in slavery. A vast majority of those residing in Maycomb cling to the belief that slavery was a part of “the good ol’ days” and this consequently shapes the attitudes of the numerous characters encountered throughout the duration of the novel. This belief was spurred largely due to the outbreak of the American Civil War from 1861-1865, which was contested by the Northern (Union) and Southern (Confederate) states of America over the abolition of slavery. Alabama, the state in which Maycomb is geographically a part of, sided with the Confederacy (who were pro-slavery). Through Scout’s preposition of Maycomb, Harper Lee utilises its non-progressive nature and connects it to the idea of discrimination - a problem which has long plagued the town.
In Chapter 12 of the novel, Scout and her brother, Jem, are taken by their household maid, Calpurnia, to her church known as the ‘First Purchase’. This micro setting of Maycomb is further used in order to link the setting to the idea of discrimination. Scout states that the church is located “in the quarters outside the southern town limits”. Upon considering the use of the preposition “outside”, this implies that white and coloured folk do not live in the same area - rather this is actually illegal. Prepositions are used with great effect here to address the institutionalised racism that was present within Maycomb’s society, and at the time was normalised. The reader is further educated on institutionalization when Calpurnia says to Jem that “Can’t but about four folks of the First Purchase read”, as it implies that those of colour are unable to get the same level of education as white people. They are not given the same opportunities as their fellow white citizens.
Scout also describes the appearance of the church as “an ancient paint-peeled frame building”. The adjective “ancient” is a negative connotation, as it tells the reader of the subpar state of the church. It is not maintained in an adequate manner in comparison to other buildings such as the Maycomb Jailhouse. This relates back to its location outside the southern town limits - the church is disregarded and not looked after by the inhabitants of Maycomb. This is especially true for the white men, who do not respect the religious significance of the church and “gamble in it on weekdays”. Lee’s inclusion of the First Purchase Church further correlates with the theme of discrimination, and also sheds light on the Jim Crow Laws, which legalised segregation in all public spaces. Through the institution of these laws, there was a clear social divide which became prominent in American society over the course of many years.
Perhaps the most climactic and important setting used to display discrimination was the Maycomb Courthouse. Upon arrival at the courthouse for the controversial trial of Tom Robinson, a coloured man accused of raping a white woman, Scout describes the external appearance of the courthouse as having elements of “early Victorian” and “Greek” architecture. This paints the picture of the courthouse having a respectable image. It is a place which looks lovely and quaint on the outside. It is pleasing to observe, as one would commonly associate with Victorian and Greek architecture. The mixture of these two architectural styles can also be interpreted as an indication of the different types of people that the Courthouse serves, such as farmers and common townspeople. However, not all are served equally.
The positive image of the Courthouse is then flipped over upon entering, as the interior is dilapidated, deteriorating and stinks of urine. The interior is a complete juxtaposition of the external appearance and symbolises the true nature of the building - it is actually a place of corruption, shown figuratively in the numerous cases held there and literally in the appalling state of the interior. A place which is supposed to uphold justice and integrity is ironically filled with corruption. This is further reinforced through the quote “steered us gently through the black people in the balcony” and the use of an all-white jury. The quote above once again shows segregation, as coloured people are ironically separated from white people in terms of seating in the Courtroom, and there are also no coloured people on the jury.
Tom Robinson’s trial was not only highly controversial due to the false accusation of rape, but also due to the derogatory and discriminatory manner in which it was handled. Mr Gilmer, Tom’s prosecutor, repeatedly addresses him as “Boy” - he dehumanises him and reminds the all-white jury of Tom’s place in society. He aims to use the racist attitudes of the jury in order to convict Tom. He implies that any white person (even the Ewell’s) are better than any coloured person. Tom Robinson’s case is a loose allegory of the ‘Scottsboro Nine’ boys - nine coloured boys were accused of raping two white women on a railway train. Although there was no medical evidence to suggest that they themselves were the perpetrators, the all-white jury still convicted them all as “guilty”. This is just one of many instances in which the American Justice System was exposed.
In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee has successfully connected the macro setting of Maycomb and its underlying micro settings to the theme of discrimination. She exposes the non-progressive, stagnant nature of the town, further expanded on this through the First Purchase Church and Maycomb Courtroom in order to incite her past and present audience to consider their own personal beliefs and attitudes, in the hopes of making a change for the better.