To Kill a Mockingbird

by: Harper Lee

Setting

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in Maycomb, Alabama during 1933–1935. These years place the events of the novel squarely within two important periods of American history: the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era. The Great Depression is reflected in the poverty that affects all of the residents of Maycomb. Even the Finches, who are objectively better off than many of the other citizens in the area, are ultimately poor and living within the means available to them. The years depicted in the novel also fall within the much longer period of time that modern historians often refer to as the Jim Crow era. This term describes the time from the late 19th century until the mid-1960s when black people in the United States could no longer be held in slavery, but where laws limited the social, political, and economic possibilities available to black citizens. We should remember that when Harper Lee wrote the novel in the late 1950s, the Great Depression was over, but Jim Crow laws were still present in substantial portions of the American South.

The fictional town of Maycomb, in the fictional Maycomb County, seems intended not to represent an exact location in the real world, but a kind of small Southern town that existed in the 1930s. Scout describes the town as old, tired, and suffocating. In addition to being literally appropriate, these descriptions also apply to more subtle social aspects of the town. The town is burdened, Atticus might say diseased, by social prejudices in general, and racism in particular. Maycomb is also sharply geographically divided along class lines. While more prosperous families like the Finches live in large houses close to the center of town, the Ewells live in a ramshackle cabin near the dump, out of sight of the rest of the town except at Christmas, when people drive their trees and trash to the dump. The only other dwellings in this area are the cabins where black families live, an indication that the town is both racially and economically segregated. The Ewells lack basic necessities like running water and insulation, and they frequently forage in the dump for food. “Every town the size of the Maycomb had families like the Ewells,” Scout says, implying that the economic inequality is endemic to the region.