The Tired Old Town Of Maycomb Society English Literature Essay
At the start of the novel, Scout describes Maycomb as a ‘tired old town’ with lazy habitants. This gives us the impression that nothing much happens in Maycomb and that the area is dull. She describes it as being a small laidback town where everyone knows each other’s business. Scout also describes to us how there are few things to do in Maycomb: “there was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.” This sets the scene and justifies from a child’s point of view how there is nothing to do and that Maycomb is a rather boring town.
The novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is set in the southern town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. At this time there were many background problems in the USA caused by the economic downturn. At the height of the Depression in 1933, nearly 25% of the country’s total population, roughly 12,830,000 were unemployed. As poverty increased, people looked for someone to blame. They told themselves that things would be better without the ethnic minorities, and that it was their fault. At this point in history, prejudice and racial discrimination was at its greatest causing segregation between the blacks and the whites; they lived separately and had different benches, churches and bus priorities. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as the country’s president. He tried to clean up the economy and improve it but, despite all his efforts and the courage of the American people, the Depression hung on until 1941. The novel was written in 1959 and published in 1960. It is likely that many of its content were based on the effects of the great depression, thus including the Scottsboro trials which formed the basis of Tom Robinson’s trial in the novel. The novel also draws influences from the effect of the Civil Rights Movement, which was determined to establish racial equality.
Although initially Maycomb may seem to have negative aspects, there are in fact, several positive aspects to be explored. Maycomb regards itself as a very religious town. Everything is kept in simplest form to prevent distraction from God. Jem tells Dill that they: “Don’t have any picture shows here, except Jesus ones in the courthouse sometimes.” This shows how Maycomb does not want its inhabitants to become distracted and less faithful to the church. Throughout the novel there are many references to God, “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t help that man”. This emphasises the relationship that the citizens of Maycomb have with the church. We also learn that the people spend a lot of their time at church during the week: “In the long hours of church” this reminds us of what a strong, religious community Macomb is, as its inhabitants are faithful and honest to the church. Church-going is described as Maycomb’s “principle recreation”.
Maycomb is a close, strong bound community and everyone helps when there is a crisis. We see this during the fire at Miss Maudie’s house: “the men of Maycomb, in all degrees of dress and undress, took furniture from Miss Maudie’s house to a yard across the street.” This shows how Maycomb can be a supportive community and that most people help out when someone is in trouble. We see how many of the people act in a heroic way as they risk their lives to save some of Miss Maudie’s belongings: “I saw Atticus carrying Miss Maudie’s heavy oak rocking chair, and I thought it sensible of him to save what she valued the most”. Atticus seems to understand what is important to Miss Maudie and this shows how many of the neighbours are close friends since it is a very small community. Even though they do not get along terribly well, Miss Stephanie helps out by offering hospitality to Miss Maudie since she has nowhere to go. Towards the end of this chapter, it appears that even Boo Radley may have helped during the fire. Having watched the fire from in front of the Radley gate, Scout is appalled when she discovers that Boo may have helped by wrapping a blanket around her shoulders whilst she was freezing cold: “I looked down and found myself clutching a brown woollen blanket I was wearing around my shoulders... my stomach turned to water and I nearly threw up when Jem held out the blanket and crept towards me.” This reveals how the rumours about Boo Radley may be untrue as he seems to help by showing kindness during the fire. We also notice how the community helps one another when Tim Johnson, the rabid dog, comes towards the inhabitants houses down the road. Calpurnia is very quick-to-think as she informs everyone on the street not to go outside. She even runs back outside to warn the Radleys not to come out. Also, despite the fact that neither of them want to shoot the dog, both Atticus and Mr Tate arrive quickly to deal with the situation, in order to keep the rest of Maycomb safe.
Maycomb has many respectable citizens. Throughout the novel, we admire Atticus for his polite, modest and respectful behaviour. He sees people for who they truly are and does not judge them according to rumours and myths: "you never really understand someone until you climb into their skin and walk around in it" this is his method of understanding people and it is an important message in the novel. He is courteous to everyone, including those he does not get along with: “Good evening, Mrs Dubose! You look like a picture this morning”. This demonstrates how Atticus is a charming gentleman as he uses his politeness to deal with uneasy situations. Atticus understands Mrs Dubose and her condition and despite her demanding manners he remains pleasant and we think highly of his respectable manners, as he seeks to find the best in everyone.
Miss Maudie is a kind, gentle, respectable person. She believes that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally and does not wish to gossip about people. She is very respectful towards everyone; when Scout asks her if Boo is still alive, she corrects him by saying: “His name’s Arthur”. This shows that Miss Maudie does not believe he should be treated any differently from anyone else, just because of the rumours, and deserves to be addressed by his real name. When Aunt Alexandra arrives in Maycomb, everyone is very kind and welcoming to her: “Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight; Miss Stephanie Crawford had long visits with Aunt Alexandra, consisting mostly of Miss Stephanie shaking her head and saying, ‘Uh, uh, uh,’ Miss Rachel next door had aunty over for coffee in the afternoons, and Mr Nathan Radley went so far as to come up in the front yard and say he was glad to see her.” This shows that the people in Maycomb are very polite and friendly towards ‘the right types’ of new citizens, giving pleasant first impressions. We also see this when we are told that “Aunt Alexandra fitted in the world of Maycomb like a hand into a glove.” It shows how everyone has helped to settle her in and make her feel like part of their community.
In Maycomb, there are rarely occasions where people are forced to face their fears, as the town is usually very quiet and nothing much happens. However there are some moments in the novel where we do witness some examples of courage. Chapter 6 shows an example of physical courage when Jem returns to the Radley house to collect is trousers. Previously in the scene, we notice how Jem is in fact the scared character of the children: “Jem leaped off the porch and galloped towards us...Jem’s breath came in sobs- ‘fence by the school yard! - hurry, Scout!’”, this emphasizes the frightening atmosphere as he is the one who we would expect to be the bravest. We admire Jem for his courage and bravery when he returns to get his trousers and face his fears. Chapter 10, Atticus is reluctant to shoot the dog as he has not shot a gun for 30 years since he believes that he has been given an unfair advantage, “he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things”. This shows that he is a civilised person and does not want to use his talent to destroy innocent living things. As he has not used a gun in such a long time, Atticus is slightly anxious as he is told “miss and you’ll go straight into the Radley house”. There is also the possibility that if he is inaccurate, he may wound the dog rather than killing it. All of these factors increase tension: “Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped them in the street. In the silence I heard them crack.” This increases the tension and makes us feel sympathy for him. We respect him for the courage he has to shoot the dog for the benefit of Maycomb, despite the anxiety and problems he encounters. Despite Maycomb’s racial prejudice, Atticus agrees to represent Tom Robinson in the trial. He knows that it will cause difficulty for his family: “when summer comes you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things... it’s not fair for you and Jem, I know that” we notice that he is foreshadowing the trial and this tells us that things are going to get bad. We can sense it will be difficult as there will be added pressure created by the community’s attitudes. This is where we see courage: “I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”, Atticus is making a stand which shows that he is determined to get through the difficult situation yet to be. Another member of Maycomb, who exhibits courage, is Mrs Dubose. This is where we see that although her physical state was weak, underneath she was strong and focused on what she wanted to achieve: “her whole mind and body were concentrated on that alarm clock”. This shows how determined she was to free herself form the morphine addiction. Atticus admires her for her bravery “she said she meant to break herself of it before she died, and that’s what she did” this is a very powerful example of ‘real’ courage in the novel as it shows independence and it brings to mind that with determination, almost anything can be overcome.
We see how Maycomb values tradition as its inhabitants do not wish to develop or change their ways. Although at the time the North was becoming quite developed, many Southern states did not develop, and remained mostly farmers with their fields: “stripped of everything but their land, yet the tradition of living on the land remained unbroken”. This shows how they were quite happy with their usual, traditional methods of living. Maycomb is a simple town and there is little to do or to buy as it does not want any of the new modern technology: “Don’t have any picture-shows here", this shows how Maycomb is ‘behind its time’ as other areas such as Meridian, Mississippi, where Dill comes from, have moved on from this stage and are more advanced with technology. Maycomb County is very proud of itself and people such as Mr Cunningham do not want to change their poor ways of living: “Mr Cunningham could get a W.P.A. job, but his land would go to ruin if he left it, and he was willing to go hungry to keep his land and vote as he pleased”. This shows how Maycomb values tradition as they are proud of it.
However, there are also many negative aspects of Maycomb which we encounter. Maycomb is a divided society and suffers from class prejudice so everyone is treated differently. The Finches and Miss Maudie are both respectable whites and give the impression that they live pleasant easy-going lives. Although, later in the novel we find out that this is not the case as we see that Atticus is faced with many difficult challenges causing corruption in the neighbourhood. We therefore admire him for his talent at hiding his true emotions and feelings by misleading others to believe that he has an easy-going life. The majority of the community respect the Finches and Miss Maudie for their kind nature and pleasant personalities as they understand people and see them for who they truly are. We see that there are characters in the community who think themselves as respectable but do not behave in the correct manner, that they should. Mrs Dubose is rude and strong-minded when we come across her in the novel: “Don’t you say hey to me, you ugly girl! You say good afternoon Mrs Dubose!”. Though she is impolite she has manners and demands people to behave in the same way. Aunt Alexandra is obsessed with the superiority of the Finch family. She bosses Calpurnia from the minute she arrives:-“put my bag in front of the bedroom, Calpurnia.” She does not seem to show any respect to members of the ‘lower class’ as she believes she is far superior and therefore does not need to. She is also bossy to the children and wants them to live up to their name: “she asked me to tell you that you must try to behave like the little lady and gentleman you are.” this shows how she is unsatisfied with how Jem and Scout behave and wants them to do as she says to change their ways.
We notice there are two types of people suffering from the effects of poverty in the novel. The Cunninghams are very poor farmers who have been affected by the depression. They do not have the money to buy things, they own very few possessions and most of the time they are hungry. We admire them for their integrity as they never borrow things that they cannot pay back.
The Ewells are also poor though they are also uneducated. The Ewells “[are] members of an exclusive society made up of Ewells”. They take the law into their own hands because they are incontrollable so no one can stop them. In chapter 3, we learn more about the Ewell family and begin to understand what their home life is like. Since they are poor, they are also very dirty as they do not have enough money to clean themselves and do not care. We first encounter this when Scout describes Burris Ewells appearance during school: “he was the filthiest human I had ever seen. His neck was dark grey, the backs of his hands were rusty, and his finger-nails were black deep into the quick. He peered at Miss Caroline from a fist-sized clean space on his face.” This tells us that he does not live a particularly healthy life at home and it is likely that his father hits him. We also see that he is very rude and cruel, due a tough family life. We see this put into action when Burris Ewell insults Miss Caroline: “Ain’t no snot-nosed slut of a teacher ever born c’n make me de nothin’! You ain’t makin’ me go nowhere, missus.” This emphasises the cruel, heartless characters the Ewells all inherit as they seem to enjoy insulting people and making them upset. We find out that Mr Bob Ewell is a very irresponsible father and we see this when he “spends his relief cheques on green whisky his children have a way of crying from hunger pains.” This shows how he neglects his children- he is an alcoholic so he is often drunk and takes his violence out on the children by hitting them, he doesn’t make them go to school and does not feed them properly so they starve. We see from this how the Cunninghams are a much better class of people than the uneducated Ewells.
However even the Ewells are not regarded as low as the black community, who are automatically seen as the bottom of the class system. They live beyond the town rubbish dump, which shows they are treated like rubbish, behind the Ewell residence and are kept away as far as possible. The black community are completely demonised and anything that goes wrong is always their fault, this is similar to how Boo is treated. When the children sneak into the collard patch everyone automatically assumes that it was one of the Negroes: “Mr Radley shot at a negro at his collard patch.” This shows how no matter the consequences, people will always accuse a member of the black community. In chapter 12, when Jem and Scout go to the first purchase church with Calpurnia, we are told that “Negroes worshipped in it on Sundays and white men gambled in it on weekdays” this shows that the white community do not show any form of respect and we see it as a disgrace, especially since it is a church. We also notice that it is challenging the stereotypes. The First Purchase church has a very humble nature: “he stood beside a table in front of the pulpit and requested the morning offering.” We see that they have good intentions as they plan to raise enough money to help Tom Robinson’s wife and family, so we admire their humility, devotion and inspiration. We also see that the church really respects Atticus, “This church has no better friend than your daddy.” It shows that they really appreciate what he is doing for Tom, despite the difficulties and problems it is causing.
Maycomb is a very prejudiced community and there are many racist citizens. Mrs Dubose tells the children that their “father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for!" this shows how strongly opinionated some of the people are. Scout’s cousin Francis says that Atticus is “ruining the family” and we see how Aunt Alexandra does not like to talk about important matters “in front of Calpurnia and them” these examples all show how Maycomb does not have any respect for the black community and are unwilling to understand that they deserve to be treated the same. However, we also see another form of prejudice: “I wants to know why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church.” This is a new form of prejudice where we see black people being prejudiced to white people and also to one another: “stop right there, nigger”. It is possible that they are trying to devalue the meaning by using it to call one another. However, we notice how the black community act immediately on any form of prejudice and deal with the problem as they feel it is inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour. This is a different reaction from the white people as they do not try to control the prejudice and racial discrimination as they do not seem to care about it. This is an important chapter which the writer has included. It emphasizes how the black and white community differ in the way that they respond to prejudiced behaviour. We learn that the black community have a much more respectable and honourable way of dealing with uneasy situations as they are willing to solve any arising problem. We observe how Miss Caroline does not understand that the Maycomb children are ‘tough’ and know how to do most of the things, that she has come to teach, already. She is oblivious to the fact that they ‘come from a different world’ to her and are more experience than she thinks. We notice how the children are suspicious of outsiders and are prejudice and judgemental to begin with, since she has arrived from a different part of the country.
Maycomb is a very intolerant community and expects people who are different to conform. They are harsh and do not accept people for who they are, like Boo. Most of the community spreads rumours and gossip about Boo Radley, portraying him as a ‘Malevolent phantom’. They demonise him and blame him for morbid nocturnal events:
“Although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Barker’s Eddy, people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions.”
As he is different from everyone else, the inhabitants fear what might be and are very superstitious: “the Radley chickenyard tall pecan trees shook their fruit into the schoolyard, but the nuts were left untouched: Radley pecans would kill you.” They do not treat him the same as everyone else as they feel since he is an outcast from the community, he means danger. We see that Maycomb is very prejudiced, in chapter 5 when we learn about the ‘Foot-washing Baptists’. The author cleverly uses ‘foot washers’ as a way to bring the intolerance of Maycomb into the story. They believe that anything that is a pleasure is a sin and that if people do not follow the ‘correct’ ways of living, by staying inside and reading the bible, they might as well just go to hell: “they thought I spent too much time in God’s outdoors and not enough time inside the house reading the bible... and told me me and my flowers were going to hell”. This is an example of intolerance taken to an extreme. It shows how the foot-washing Baptists do not accept other people’s differences and it exaggerates the intolerant attitude that they have towards others. When Aunt Alexandra comes to stay, we see that she stereotypes people in Maycomb. She believes that everyone had a streak: “Everyone in Maycomb it seemed had a streak: a Drinking streak, a Gambling streak, a Mean streak, a Funny streak.” This shows how she is very judgemental of other people and their families. She is very different from Atticus- who sees people for who they are and does not judge people. She also has very traditional views of how women should behave and the appropriate clothing one should wear. We see several examples of this and one is when she tells Scout: “it would be best for you to have some feminine influence. It won’t be many years before you are interested in clothes and boys” this shows how Aunt Alexandra has high expectations for how a lady should behave. We also see how she is prejudice and does not see Calpurnia as an appropriate source of feminine influence. She does not approve of Scout’s personality or behaviour and describes her as “sluggish”.
Throughout the novel, we learn about the attitudes of Maycomb from a child’s point of view. Scout’s naivety encourages us to look at the injustices from a new angle and to question the values of the town. The innocent six year old, questions the meaning of issues, like rape, which develops our social awareness of the novel. To begin with, on the surface of Maycomb, we see it as a friendly, harmless place where nothing much happens. Children play on the streets and “ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps” which creates an easy-going, innocent, trouble-free picture. However, the more we learn about it the more concerned we become about the serious problems with prejudice and racism that Maycomb holds. The author cleverly makes us realise that there is much more to Maycomb than what we thought at the beginning of the novel.
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