Maycomb's Ways of Life
In our world today, many people live according to specific rules and practices that society considers “normal.” Rather than being true to themselves, people follow certain principles because they want to fit into society. Similarly, during the 1930s, the people of Maycomb, Alabama were surrounded by particular beliefs and stereotypes that were extremely popular. Many of Maycomb’s citizens valued these customs and lived their lives according to them. These attributes, also the main themes of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, are established early in the novel.
In Chapter One, the major themes that are introduced include the roles and restrictions of women in society, family name and reputation, and racial inequality.
The responsibilities and limitations of women in Maycomb’s society is a notable theme established in Chapter One. For instance, on page 5, Scout states, “…, when my father, Atticus Finch went to Montgomery to read law, and his younger brother went to Boston to study medicine. Their sister Alexandra was the Finch who remained at the Landing; she married a taciturn man who spent most of his time lying in a hammock by the river wondering if his trot-lines were full.
” This shows that the men of the Finch household left to pursue their education and interests, while the woman stayed at home, got married, and lived a simple life. Since femininity in Maycomb was based on a person’s role and characteristics, women were restricted from receiving higher education and accomplishing their goals. The curtailment of feminine rights is still relevant in our world today, especially in the workplace. In addition, on page 6, Scout mentions, “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.” In this quote, Lee is implying that in Maycomb’s society, men were busy and always at work. Women, on the other hand, did not work, so they slept, had free time to shower, and always stayed clean. This, again, restrained women from doing outdoor jobs and defined their role in Maycomb’s community. It reiterates the stereotype that men go out and work hard, while women stay at home and take care of the house. This stereotype is still in place in our world today. The theme of femininity progresses throughout the novel, as shown on page 108, when Scout says, “Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could not do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn’t supposed to be doing things that required pants. Aunt Alexandra’s vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father’s lonely life.” This shows that girls in Maycomb were expected to be neat, elegant, and wear jewelry and dresses, not pants. Also, they were not supposed to play outside where they would get messy but rather play inside the house with tea sets. Scout is being pressured to act and dress differently, which is preventing her from being her true self and doing things she enjoys. Lee is showing that not only were women forced to act a certain way but so were young girls, who should have been enjoying their childhood. Aunt Alexandra’s character portrays the ideal female in Maycomb and represents the expectations women and girls were required to meet. Aunt Alexandra’s comments regarding Scout show the reader that girls had constraints everything from their clothing to what they did in their free time. The same stress put on girls for meeting their expectations of being female, is still pertinent in today’s society, especially in teenage girls. For example, countless high school girls are pressured to look perfect and be skinny out of fear of being judged on their physical appearances. Along with gender roles, other aspects of life were also accentuated in Maycomb’s community.
Another prominent theme emphasized in the first chapter of the book is the importance of family name and reputation. For example, Scout says, “Atticus had urged them to accept the state’s generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass,” (page 5). This shows that even though Atticus advised the men, they still ended up getting killed because they were known for being vacuous people. Lee shows the significance of family history by indicating that a family’s actions in the past have an imperative effect on how the community perceives their generations in the future. Another example is on page 6 when Scout says, “He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him, and because of Simon Finch’s industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town.” Atticus is well-known and respected in Maycomb’s society because his ancestor, Simon Finch, set up a successful business in Maycomb many years ago. Unlike the Haverfords, the Finch’s’ family name is benefitting them in the future. The importance of family name is advanced throughout the book, as shown on page 26, “The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back – no church baskets and no scrip stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don’t have much, but they get along on it.” This shows that the Cunninghams are poor, but are fairly respected because they follow society’s rules. Upon hearing a person’s last name, people in Maycomb can create an image of the person’s character in their mind. Lee is showing that Maycomb’s citizens are judged upon reputations, not identities, which can impact a person’s interactions and friendships in the future. Judgment is also expressed in other forms during the novel.
Furthermore, racial inequality is also brought up in the first chapter of the book. One example is on page 4, when Scout mentions, “So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens.” In this quote, Lee is introducing the idea of racism by bringing up the practice of slavery. African Americans were bought and owned like property, which signifies that they had little value in society. The practice of slavery foreshadows the prejudice and bias against African Americans which plays a major role later in the novel. Another example of racial inequality being shown early in the novel is, “The sheriff hadn’t the heart to put him in jail alongside Negroes, so Boo was locked in the courthouse basement,” (page 14). This quote shows that African Americans and white people were kept in different jailhouses because even white criminals were more valuable than blacks. Lee implies that putting a white man in the same jail as an African American man is almost like torture to the white man. The officer would feel bad if he put Boo in jail with a black man, which shows the cruel treatment African Americans had to deal with. Discrimination, based on race and ethnicity, is still experienced by many people today. Racism plays a crucial role in the second part of the story during the Tom Robinson trial. Atticus states, “In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life,” (page 295). Atticus is explaining in any situation, a white man is always considered more trustworthy than a black man. This conveys the message that African Americans were treated unfairly, which eventually leads to Tom Robinson being convicted and his death. Still, even in the modern day, racism is a common practice in most parts of the world.
By paving the way for major themes early in the novel, the author sets up the plot of the story. Themes regarding the roles and restrictions of women in society, family name and reputation, and racial inequality are developed throughout the novel. As shown in the book, Maycomb’s lifestyle involved believing in certain opinions and valuing specific notions. Similarly, people in our world today follow common stereotypes and popular beliefs. People still tend to judge others based on gender, family reputation, and race. As Ralph Smart said, “Are you doing what your heart desires, or living up to society’s expectations, what friends and family think? Because the moment you start doing what you love, what you truly feel in your heart, all your cells start working for you.”
- Smart, Ralph. “Are You Doing What Your Heart Desires, or Living up to Society’s Expectations, What Friends and Family Think? Because the Moment You Start Doing What You Love, What You Truly Feel in Your Heart, All Your Cells Start Working for You.” Picture Quotes, 2018, www.picturequotes.com/are-you-doing-what-your-heart-desires-or-living-up-to-societys-expectations-what-friends-and-family-quote-270141.
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