The Society of Maycomb and its Influence on Jem and Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

Bachelor Thesis 2011 30 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Discussion of Norbert Elias’s The Established and the Outsiders

3. The Society of Maycomb
3.1 “The Ordinary Kind”
3.2 The Cunninghams
3.3 The Ewells
3.4 The Black People of Maycomb
3.5 Concepts of Maycomb

4. Atticus
4.1 His Values
4.2 The Relation to his Children

5. The Children
5.1 Jem
5.2 Scout

6. Conclusion
Works Cited

1. Introduction

In July 2010, the town of Monroeville, Alabama, threw a big birthday party for the book it is most known for: The home town of author Harper Lee celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of her extremely successful novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Having always been a “magnet for ‘Mockingbird’ fans”, the town organized “walking tours and marathon readings of the novel in the courthouse” (CBS News). In the US, To Kill a Mockingbird is part of the curriculum of many school districts, highlighting its never-ending fame and its significance.

Harper Lee went on to win a Pulitzer Price for the novel in 1961. At that time, the novel was already a major success, having sold 500,000 copies (cf. Sullivan). In 1962, it was made into a movie, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. The movie received two Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Screenplay. As of today, the book has been translated into 40 languages, has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and is still selling about 750,000 copies every year (cf. Sullivan).

Monroeville is not only the home of Harper Lee, but it also serves as the model for the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in which the novel is set. As a matter of fact, scenes of the movie were filmed in Monroeville. Apart from the setting of the novel, readers and critics were quick to detect other similarities between Harper Lee and the narrator, the six-year-old girl, Scout Finch (whose real name is Jean Louise).

Just as Scout’s father Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s father Amasa was a lawyer. When Harper Lee was growing up, nine young African-American men were innocently accused and found guilty of raping two white women in the Scottsboro Trials, similar to Tom Robinson’s fate in the novel.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an important novel for both young and old readers because of its appealing way to present the story. The narrator is the six-year-old Scout Finch. The readers see and experience the events of the story through her eyes and learn to appreciate Scout’s way of telling things and her special view of Maycomb’s society. The reason for this is that Scout is an innocent little girl who does not yet fully understand the world she lives in. Besides she is not yet socialized in the society; she does not know about the conventions and norms with regard to race, gender, and hierarchy.

The society of Maycomb is of major significance to Scout and her older brother Jem. In the course of the novel, the children learn that the society consists of different social classes, and they learn about people’s points of view and their behaviour from their father Atticus. As Scout’s and Jem’s perspectives develop from a childlike, innocent perspective into a wiser and more experienced outlook on life, their attitudes towards society change accordingly. This paper seeks to examine this development in more detail.

For a more in-depth understanding of the novel, the model of The Established and the Outsiders by the sociologist Norbert Elias will be summarized. A short introduction to this study will serve as a basis for the discussion of the society of Maycomb. Chapter three will examine the different social strata of Maycomb and will take a closer look at the concepts upon which the society is built. The fourth chapter will explore the character and values of Atticus more closely as he influences his children and serves as a role model for the whole community of Maycomb. Thereafter, a detailed discussion of the characters of Jem and Scout will be offered. The last section will give a short conclusion.

2. Discussion of Norbert Elias’s The Established and the Outsiders

Norbert Elias was a German sociologist who, in 1960, conducted a study in an English suburb called Winston Parva. Elias discovered a distinction between two groups, whom he named the ‘Established’ and the ‘Outsiders’. He declared that there was “a sharp division [...] between an old-established group and a newer group of residents, whose members were treated as outsiders by the established group” (Established xv).

Most of the times, such distinctions are triggered by differences of class or race. In Winston Parva, though, the two groups did neither differ in race nor in nationality, nor did they show a different professional or educational background. The only thing the two groups did not share was the length of residency in that town (cf. Elias, Established xvii).

The Established had lived in Winston Parva for generations; their families had known each other for a long time; they shared the same norms (cf. Elias, Established xxii), memories, sympathies, and antipathies (cf. Elias, Established xxxviii ff.). Therefore, it was easier for the established people to get organized against the Outsiders. Through their long-lasting relationships and connections, they were able to occupy positions at local organizations, clubs, and churches, and could prevent the Outsiders from engaging in community work (cf. Elias, Established xviii). According to Elias, the fact that they occupy those positions is responsible for them having more power (cf. Established xviii). As opposed to the Established, the Outsiders were “strangers not only to the old residents but also to each other” and, in consequence, they lacked the cohesion the Established manifested (cf. Elias, Established xxii). Thus, they were not able to organize themselves efficiently.

The Established regarded themselves as better human beings and refused to have contact with the Outsiders (cf. Elias, Established xvi). They saw the new residents as a threat to their “we-image and we-ideal” (Elias, Established xlvi) and as attacking “their monopolised power resources, [...] their group charisma and [...] their group norms” (Elias, Established li ff.).

The Established, though, were forced to adhere to some norms of behaviour, too, such as avoiding any contact with the Outsiders. If they broke these rules, they themselves could lose their status and could be ostracized (cf. Elias, Established l). As it will be explored later, this does not apply to everyone as exceptions to the rule are possible.

When reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Elias understood that the novel illustrated his theory and widened his initial model. He added another chapter titled “ Das Maycomb-Modell” to later editions of the study. This model will be significant within the discussion of the character of Atticus in chapter four of this paper. Before that point will be discussed, the society of Maycomb with its four strata will be examined more closely.

3. The Society of Maycomb

Harper Lee’s novel is set in Maycomb, Alabama, a small town in the countryside at the beginning of the 1930s. Lee draws a large panorama of the society by presenting many characters from different social strata (cf. Schede 54).

Maycomb is identified as a small town where everyone is acquainted with one another, where life goes on slowly, and where there is not much to do. Scout points out when first talking about Maycomb, “A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. 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” (Lee 6). Within this statement, Scout not only identifies Maycomb as a sleepy little town but also refers to the poverty at that time. In another description of Maycomb, Scout tells the readers that new people are unlikely to settle in Maycomb: As a result of the “Reconstruction rule” and the Great Depression, the town “grew inward” (Lee 144). When Scout grows up, everyone knows about the peculiarities of other families. This is made clear on Scout’s first day of school. When her teacher Miss Caroline, who is originally from Northern Alabama, offers Scout’s classmate Walter money to buy lunch, he rejects it. Scout feels the necessity to explain, “Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham” (Lee 22). For the natives of Maycomb, the mentioning of Walter’s last name is enough to explain the whole matter. They know that the Cunninghams are too poor to pay back their debts. Miss Caroline, though, is puzzled. Since she does not come from Maycomb, she does not know how to understand this comment. Scout remembers Miss Caroline’s background and adds, “That’s okay, ma’am, you’ll get to know all the country folks after a while” (Lee 22).

Scout later explains, “[T]he present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shading, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time” (Lee 145). This again shows the great familiarity among Maycomb’s citizens.

Another character Scout gets to know on her first day of school is Burris Ewell, a dirty and impertinent young boy and Bob Ewell’s son. The Ewells will play a crucial part in the course of the novel. After Burris insults and scares Miss Caroline, the other children try to comfort her by explaining that the way Burris behaves “ain’t Maycomb’s ways” (Lee 31). This makes clear two things: First, there is an unspoken code of behaviour in Maycomb, namely being polite and nice to each other, creating thus a good living environment. And second, the Ewells apparently do not behave according to these rules.

These short scenes show that it is difficult for ‘outsiders’ to understand native Maycombians[1]. It will be tough for Miss Caroline to get acquainted with all families and to learn about their unique characteristics.

The following four sections are based on Jem’s distinction between the different strata of Maycomb. He points out, “There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbours, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes” (Lee 249). This statement is of utmost importance as it shows that Jem comprehends that there are different strata in Maycomb. The first to be analyzed will be the strata of the Finches and their neighbors.

3.1 “The Ordinary Kind”

As far as the first stratum of people is concerned, Jem identifies them as the ‘normal’ ones, the “ordinary kind like us and the neighbours” (Lee 249). The Finches’ most important neighbors include Miss Maudie Atkinson, a widowed woman who grew up with Atticus and whom Jem and Scout like most of all adults in Maycomb besides their father. There is also the Radley family who prefers to stick to themselves instead of socializing with their neighbors, and Mrs Dubose, an elderly woman, who constantly insults the Finches.

The reason why Jem puts all of them into the same category is due to the fact that they are all more or less well-off and healthy in comparison to the other strata of Maycomb. Although Atticus says that his family is poor as well, he also points out that his poverty is only a result of the farmers’ poverty (cf. Lee 23). Atticus and his neighbors, though, are able to make a living and can provide for themselves and their families in contrast to the Ewells or the Cunninghams (though they can live off what they produce).

Nevertheless, there are differences between the neighbors. The most prominent can be seen between the Radleys and their neighbors. They lead an isolated life: Scout notices that the “Radleys, welcome anywhere in town, [keep] to themselves, a predilection unforgivable in Maycomb” (Lee 10). She adds, “The shutters and doors of the Radley house were closed on Sundays, [...] closed doors meant illness and cold weather only” (Lee 10). This shows that the Radleys have a different status in Maycomb than the other residents; they simply keep away from the others. The Radleys do not obey Maycomb’s unspoken rules as their closed windows show. The usual ‘Maycomb way’ is to socialize with neighbors and to carry on small talk every now and then. The Radleys, however, are not like this. They withdraw from society and close the doors and windows in order to be left alone.

The reason the Radleys keep to themselves is their religion. Miss Maudie once tells Scout that the Radleys belong to those kind of Baptists “[who] believe anything that’s pleasure is a sin” (Lee 49). They criticize Miss Maudie for gardening instead of being inside her house, reading the Bible (cf. Lee 49). The fanatically religious Radleys, thus, deviate from their neighbors because they have their own way of doing things and do not accept the way others live. After their younger son Arthur caused some trouble in the past, Mr and Mrs Radley chose to lock him up, rather than sending him to an industrial school (cf. Lee 11). By doing that, they isolate their son from the outside world and hurt him forever.

With regard to the Finch family, there is one member that deviates from the rest: Aunt Alexandra. Atticus’s sister comes to live with him and his children shortly before the trial against Atticus’s client Tom Robinson begins. Tom is an African-American man charged with the rape of a white woman. Alexandra comes to Maycomb to help her brother through this difficult time, though she acts in a reserved way and seems to show little compassion and understanding. Aunt Alexandra has a different understanding of raising children. Whereas Atticus is a more laid-back, liberal parent and gives his children opportunities to experience themselves, Alexandra is stricter and does not permit Scout to make her own experiences, for example, when she wants to visit their black housekeeper Calpurnia at her home.

Aunt Alexandra is a narrow-minded woman. Someone’s decendence and background is of great importance to her. Being from a family that has lived for decades on Finch’s Landing, she prefers to socialize with traditional and established families. Scout is confused by this, for she was raised differently. She declares,

I never understood her preoccupation with heredity. Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion [...] that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was (Lee 143).

As the readers understand, Scout learned how to look at other people from her father Atticus, who also sees people as individuals and does not judge them simply by their name or background. For him, good people are those who do good things.

Alexandra feels committed to her “gentle breeding” (Lee 147) and does not want her niece and nephew to mix with children of other backgrounds. When Scout wants to play with Walter Cunningham jr., whose father is a poor but respectable farmer, Alexandra does not grant her permission to do so. She tells Scout, “[T]hey’re not our kind of folks”, and continues, “The thing is, you can scrub Walter Cunningham till he shines, you can put him in shoes and a new suit, but he’ll never be like Jem” (Lee 247). This statement shows that Alexandra is not as open-minded as her brother for whom someone’s decendence is of no significance. She opposes Scout’s wish, because the Cunninghams are ‘trash’ in her eyes. To her, all poor people are the same: No matter, if they are industrious and striving to change their situation like the Cunninghams or if they are lazy and accountable for their own poverty like the Ewells. This is one of the biggest differences between Atticus and his sister: He does make a distinction and his children follow his example.

The following sections 3.2 and 3.3 will focus on the strata of the Cunninghams and the Ewells respectively, and will, thus, highlight the differences between them which Aunt Alexandra does not see or chooses to ignore.

3.2 The Cunninghams

The second stratum Jem mentions is composed of farmers like the Cunningham family who lives in the country that surrounds Maycomb. Apart from them, the novel does not mention any other members of this group. Scout introduces the readers to the large Cunningham family early in the novel on her first day at school. The Cunninghams are very poor as the prices for crops and other agricultural products have fallen heavily as a result of the Great Depression. For Jeffrey B. Wood, the Cunninghams “represent Everyman, individuals struggling to maintain their independence and common decency in the midst of the Great Depression” (85).

They struggle to survive to such an extent that Walter jr. does not wear any shoes on the first day of school. As a result, he has got hookworms (cf. Lee 21). Although there is no hint in the text, the Cunninghams have probably more than one child and they produce just enough to get by (cf. Lee 22).

During Walter jr.’s first appearance in the novel, it becomes clear that the Cunninghams are honorable, proud people, no matter how poor they are or how little they are able to take care of themselves. Walter refuses to take Miss Caroline’s money because he knows that he will not be able to pay her back. This shows that he is a good-hearted and upright boy with pride and principles like the rest of his family.

Mr Cunningham was Atticus’s client because of an entailment[2] and owed him money. Since he was not able to pay his debts in money, he paid his dues in natural goods. He is an honorable man whom Atticus respects.

One aspect that contradicts the Cunninghams’ upright reputation is the fact that the majority of the mob that arrives to kill Tom on the evening before the trial are Cunninghams. In that scene, Scout recognizes Mr Cunningham and starts to ask him questions about the entailment and his son. This way, she singles him out from the rest of the mob. He is no longer a part of them but an individual. By reminding Mr Cunningham of the things the Finches have done for his family, Scout moves him and makes him feel ashamed, so that eventually he orders the mob to withdraw. Atticus once again shows his great compassion and moral superiority in understanding the Cunninghams’ actions rather than judging them. He clings to his motto and tries to put himself into their shoes for a while. He explains, “Mr Cunningham’s basically a good man, [...] he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us” (Lee 173). Atticus refrains from judgment and tries to understand everyone. This is one of Atticus’s many positive character traits.


[1] The origin of the word ’Maycombian’ lies in Chapter 2 of To Kill a Mockingbird. Miss Blount is called ”a native Maycombian“ (Lee 24).

[2] Hans-Georg Schede offers the following explanation of an ’entailment’: “Juristischer Begriff, der einen Zustand bezeichnet, in dem ein Landbesitzer Einschränkungen seines Erbrechts hinnimmt. Während der 1930er Jahre waren viele Farmer in den Südstaaten aus Armut gezwungen, Hypotheken auf ihr Eigentum aufzunehmen oder Entailments zu unterzeichnen, um auf diesem Wege Schulden zu begleichen“ (81).


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Title: The Society of Maycomb and its Influence on Jem and Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee