Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop . . . [s]omehow it was hotter then . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. . . . 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. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
This quotation, from Chapter 1, is Scout’s introductory description of Maycomb. Scout emphasizes the slow pace, Alabama heat, and old-fashioned values of the town, in which men wear shirt collars, ladies use talcum powder, and the streets are not paved, turning to “red slop” in the rain. This description situates Maycomb in the reader’s mind as a sleepy Southern town; Scout even calls it “tired.” It also situates Scout with respect to the narrative: she writes of the time when she “first knew” Maycomb, indicating that she embarks upon this recollection of her childhood much later in life, as an adult. The description also provides important clues about the story’s chronological setting: in addition to now-outdated elements such as mule-driven Hoover carts and dirt roads, it also makes reference to the widespread poverty of the town, implying that Maycomb is in the midst of the Great Depression.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself” is the most famous line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech, made after the 1932 presidential election. From this clue, it is reasonable to infer that the action of the story opens in the summer of 1933, an assumption that subsequent historical clues support. The defeat of the National Recovery Act in the Supreme Court in 1935, for instance, is mentioned in Chapter 27 of the novel, when Scout is eight—about two years older than at the start of the novel.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
This important snippet of conversation from Chapter 3 finds Atticus giving Scout the crucial piece of moral advice that governs her development for the rest of the novel. The simple wisdom of Atticus’s words reflects the uncomplicated manner in which he guides himself by this sole principle. His ability to relate to his children is manifested in his restatement of this principle in terms that Scout can understand (“climb into his skin and walk around in it”). Scout struggles, with varying degrees of success, to put Atticus’s advice into practice and to live with sympathy and understanding toward others. At the end of the book, she succeeds in comprehending Boo Radley’s perspective, fulfilling Atticus’s advice in Chapter 3 and providing the novel with an optimistic ending despite the considerable darkness of the plot.
“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
These lines from Chapter 10 are the source of the novel’s title and introduce one of the key metaphors of the book: the idea of “mockingbirds” as good, innocent people who are destroyed by evil. Boo Radley, for instance, is like a mockingbird—just as mockingbirds do not harm people but only “sing their hearts out for us,” Boo does not harm anyone; instead, he leaves Jem and Scout presents, covers Scout with a blanket during the fire, and eventually saves the children from Bob Ewell. Despite the pureness of his heart, however, Boo has been damaged by an abusive father. The connection between songbirds and innocents is made explicitly several times in the book: in Chapter 25, Mr. Underwood likens Tom Robinson’s death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children”; in Chapter 30, Scout tells Atticus that hurting Boo Radley would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.” The moral imperative to protect the vulnerable governs Atticus’s decision to take Tom’s case, just as it leads Jem to protect the roly-poly bug from Scout’s hand.
A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention. It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. . . . Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive. Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
This passage from Chapter 31 is Scout’s exercise in thinking about the world from Boo Radley’s perspective. After she walks him home, Scout stands on Boo’s porch and imagines many of the events of the story (Atticus shooting the mad dog, the children finding Boo’s presents in the oak tree) as they must have looked to Boo. She at last realizes the love and protection that he has silently offered her and Jem all along. The blossoming of Scout’s ability to assume another person’s perspective sympathetically is the culmination of her novel-long development as a character and of To Kill a Mockingbird’s moral outlook as a whole.
“When they finally saw him, why he hadn’t doneany of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . .” His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
These words, from Chapter 31, conclude the novel. As Scout falls asleep, she is telling Atticus about the events of The Gray Ghost, a book in which one of the characters is wrongly accused of committing a crime and is pursued. When he is finally caught, however, his innocence is revealed. As Scout sleepily explains the story to Atticus, saying that the character was “real nice” when “they finally saw him,” Atticus gently notes the truth of that observation. In this way, Lee closes the book with a subtle reminder of the themes of innocence, accusation, and threat that have run throughout it, putting them to rest by again illustrating the wise moral outlook of Atticus: if one lives with sympathy and understanding, then it is possible to retain faith in humanity despite its capacity for evil—to believe that most people are “real nice.” Additionally, this passage emphasizes Atticus’s strong, loving role as a parent to Scout and Jem—he tucks Scout in, then goes to sit by Jem’s bedside all night long. Through Atticus’s strength, the tension and danger of the previous chapters are resolved, and the book ends on a note of security and peace.