Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird incorporates historically accurate material into an otherwise fictional story. Drawing upon current events, social conditions, and attitudes prevalent in the United States during the 1930s, the novel’s setting, characters and themes depict a realistic interpretation of life in a southern town during the Depression. This classic novel takes place during the early 1930s. The novel accurately portrays the social system and troubles of the Depression era, where poverty and unemployment affected numerous states, including Alabama. Poverty seemed to have been the main struggle for families in the 1930s. Atticus Finch, the protagonist of the novel, an educated lawyer, who goes to work in clean clothes, and owns enough money to hire a black housekeeper to watch over his children belonged to the elite of local society, however they too were low on money. Poverty seemed to have contributed to making the south a class-conscious society. As Jem said “There’s four kinds of folks in the word. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.” (page 103) To further explain, the Finches stand towards the top of Maycomb’s social hierarchy, following the townspeople beneath them. After the townspeople come the ignorant farmers such as the Cunninghams, then the white trash Ewells resting at the bottom of the totem pole. However at the very bottom of the list come the African-Americans. These social divisions are what make up Maycomb, causing children’s perplexity at the class status, and prejudice in human interaction amongst Maycomb’s few residents. It is evident that the way things are in the small town of Maycomb, are the way they have always been. At this time, in the early 1930’s, automobiles had only been around for a few years, it was common for most families to depend on horses for transportation, while the more elite were fortunate enough to drive automobiles.
The Great Depression affected every group of Americans during the tough era. Whether one was a farmer like Mr. Cunningham or a lawyer like Atticus Finch, black or white, young or old, they were affected. However in those years, there was a clear hierarchy and difference between those that had money and lived in nice, furnished houses, compared to those who struggled to operate their own farm. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee focused more on the differences between whites and blacks in the society. To Kill a Mockingbird portrayed the racial injustices and prejudice against African Americans in the United States during the Great Depression. These criminal rights issues were shown during the Trial of Tom Robinson. All black men were viewed as rapists, after a false rumor and accusation. It is evident Maycomb has always been racially segregated. The African-Americans of Maycomb have their own church and cemetery outside the cities border. Inside the courtroom, the white have good seats on the floor, while the blacks sit up in the balcony in their own separate section. Similar to this, in movie theatres designated doors were assigned to coloured and whites with signs written on separate doors. White and black children attended different schools until school segregation was established in 1954. Whites and blacks were not allowed in the same jail cells, and the inequality amongst races in the courtroom during trials. Once Mayella, Mr. Ewell and Tom Robinson had all testified, even though it was clear Tom Robinson was innocent, the jury claimed him guilty because they wouldn’t allow a black man free against the testimony of two white people. Similar to Tom Robinson’s trail is the Scottsboro trial that took place in March of 1931 in Alabama. That day, two white girls were allegedly raped by nine black teenagers on the Southern Railroad. Although there was no evidence connecting the boys to the women, they were all charged with rape and sent to jail.
This court case caused many trails, convictions and punishments for a crime that was never committed. Both Tom Robinson and the Scottsboro trial dealt with the word of a white woman against the word of an African-American and the fact there was no real evidence. There were several instances where a black man had been killed before he was put on trial. This type of racism occurred because the white people saw themselves as better and more civilized people The families and characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were accurately portrayed in traditional, old fashioned households in the early 1930’s. Girls were expected to act like ladies, and boys to act like gentlemen. The traditional woman jobs included stay at home house wives, and teachers such as Miss Caroline. Scout is unlike more girls her age. She prefers overalls and a button up shirt as supposed to a dress with stockings. However, Atticus’s sister, Aunt Alexandra is the perfect southern lady. She has very strict and traditional ideas of how Maycomb’s society works and the roles a Southern woman must play. She earnestly tried to pass along and teach Scout to becoming a lady, who is not predominantly interested. Her concernedness and determination lead to her stay with the family the summer of Tom Robinson’s trail to “properly” raise Jem and Scout. Atticus treats his children as adults, and expects to be treated with respect. Majority of the population of Alabama at this time were Christians, and attended church every Sunday morning. Calpurnia, the Finchs coloured house keeper took Jem and Scout to the church for African-Americans outside of town on Sundays. There, the kids saw that Calpurnia acted differently with her friends they she did in the Finches household. “That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one, to say nothing of her having command of two languages.” (page 128). Back in 1930, the majority of the African-American population was uneducated. They did not have the same opportunities as the whites.
A typical colored family in the 1930s consisted of the wife working as a maid or housekeeper, the man working a very low income job, and the children often did not attend school, and instead helped provide an income for the family. After Tom Robinson was put in jail, Helen, his wife, no longer had an income. The old fashioned households are to say were due to the stubbornness of the society, and the unwillingness to change. Atticus Finch, unlike most Maycomb residents, was the only one to come into Tom Robinson’s defense, demonstrating his kindness and his firm beliefs of equality. To Kill a Mockingbird depicts multiple themes, however the most important theme is the exploration of moral nature of humans. In other words, whether people are good or evil. This is shown through Jem and Scout’s childhood innocence being transitioned into a more adult perspective. Like any kids, Jem and Scout assumed that all people are good, because they had never seen evil. However, after witnessing the Tom Robinson trial, the children see that there is evil that exists. Despite Tom’s conviction Scout struggled to understand yet still maintained faith in human nature. However Jem’s faith in humanity was damaged once discovery the evil of racism. A prime example of goodness is Atticus Finch. All throughout the novel, he stood up for his personal beliefs. He taught his children, as well as the town that people contain aspects of good and evil, however the good often will prevail. Atticus struggles to change the society’s perspective, however continues to stand wall because he believes goodness will prevail over all evil, including racism and racial equality will soon exist. Conflicts are caused between certain individuals and the community, when each has a different standard of right and wrong. Due to Atticus’ decision to defend Tom Robinson in his trial, the farmers, including Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Ewell were not happy with Mr. Finch. Atticus stood tall from the beginning to the very end of the trial, in hopes of proving to the town about goodness. Scout developed as a character in the novel through her gradual development towards understanding Atticus’s lessons about goodness. In the final chapters, she viewed the world from Boo Radley’s perspective and has a strong belief that in the end, goodness prevails. Published in 1960, some believe To Kill a Mockingbird is an autobiography of Harper Lee’s life.
However she denied that the story is not an autobiography and simply wrote “what she knows”. There are numerous similarities between the characters and setting and her own childhood and life growing up. Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, a small town in Alabama similar to Maycomb. Similarities between herself and Scout’s life are unmistakable. Her father, A.C. Lee, was her inspiration for Atticus’s character. He too was a lawyer and defended two black men accused of murder. However these two men were found guilty and were hung. Lee described her childhood in an interview as being a “rough n tough tomboy”. Growing up she was surrounded by racism and occasional violence, and said her childhood inspired her to write To Kill a Mockingbird. Through the use of setting, characters and one of the many themes, To Kill a Mockingbird accurately represented the southern United States in the early 1930s. Written 30 years later, Harper Lee was able to loosely incorporate similar events, environments, and social aspects of Alabama during the years of the Great Depression. One reason why this novel is considered an all-time classic is because of its lasting significance that portrays different aspects or events and issues, making it
worthwhile and memorable.
Crow, Jim. “The Scottsboro Case (1931).” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_scotts.html
“To Kill a Mockingbird: Scottsboro Trials.” To Kill a Mockingbird: Scottsboro Trials. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <http://resources.mhs.vic.edu.au/mockingbird/scottsboro.htm>
“Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird.” Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird. N.p., 09 July 2009. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. <http://www.slideshare.net/es99.trish.turner/themes-in-to-kill-a-mockingbird>.
“To Kill a Mockingbird.” Study Guides & Essay Editing. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2012. <http://www.gradesaver.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird/study-guide/major-themes/>.