To Kill a Mockingbird

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Small Town Southern Life Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Prejudice Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Courage Theme Icon
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To Kill a Mockingbird, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon

Maycomb is a small town, with all of the characteristics implicit in small town life: everyone knows everyone else's business, which can lead to endless and mostly harmless gossip, but more importantly makes the community extremely intimate and close-knit. The first part of To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on this close-knit community, because when they're young Scout and Jem believe that's what Maycomb is.

To an extent, the young Scout and Jem are right: Maycomb is a small, safe, peaceful, intimate community. Yet as Scout and Jem grow up, they come to see another side to their small town. They discover that the town has a fiercely maintained and largely illogical social hierarchy based on wealth, history, and race; ensures its safety through a communal insistence on conformity that subjects anyone who does not conform to dislike and mistrust; and gains its peace by resisting change and ignoring injustice. This is not to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is a condemnation of small town life in the South. Rather, the novel sees the town in much the same terms it sees individuals: as containing wisdom and blindness, good and evil, and for all of that possessing its own special dignity.

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Small Town Southern Life Quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird

Below you will find the important quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird related to the theme of Small Town Southern Life.
Chapter 1 Quotes
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. . . . 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.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Scout describes the setting where the rest of the novel will take place, evocatively depicting the small-town life that defined her childhood. However, in some ways this description is deceptive. It suggests that nothing ever happened in Maycomb – that, in a certain way, it was located outside history, its inhabitants leading their lives in sleepy continuity without having to face the problems or changes taking place outside the town's borders.

The rest of the novel will show this not to be the case. However, this doesn't mean that this depiction is a lie: here, Scout focuses on the way she herself experienced the town when she was a child, before she recognized that Maycomb was indeed part of history. Already, the last sentence of this passage suggests a wider context: "nothing to fear but fear itself" recalls a famous line from Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural presidential address in 1933 (a reference that also helps to place the novel in a specific time period). Within a broader context of the Great Depression and of the rise of Nazi Germany, the book will focus on courage in the more local milieu of Maycomb, though as the novel will show Roosevelt's suggestion will be just as relevant in Maycomb as in the rest of the world.


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Chapter 9 Quotes
"If you shouldn't be defendin' him, then why are you doin' it?"

"For a number of reasons," said Atticus. "The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again."

"Atticus, are we going to win it?"

"No, honey."

"Then why-"

"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win," Atticus said.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker), Tom Robinson
Page Number: 100-101
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Atticus teaches Scout a difficult lesson about morality – one that goes counter to her own childhood impulses. Scout has heard other children at school criticize Atticus, and when she asks why, he tells her that he has decided to defend in court Tom Robinson, a black man accused of murder, even though he knows there's no chance of winning. Until now, Scout has considered that physically fighting and winning is what it means to be courageous. Now, her father attempts to explain to her that it can show even more courage to strive for something even when one knows that failure is inevitable.

Rather than acting because he will win, Atticus chooses to defend Tom Robinson because he knows that it is the right thing to do. Interestingly, even though many people in town are prejudiced and disagree with Atticus's choice, for Atticus it is the fact that everyone in town knows him and his own beliefs that serves as another motivation for him to act according to his beliefs. He believes that only by standing up for his ideas can he then, in turn, be seen as a representative of the community (even if the community disagrees with some of those beliefs). In order to be morally consistent, Atticus believes, he must act on behalf of human dignity – and more specifically, this man's dignity – regardless of the end result.

Chapter 10 Quotes
"Atticus, you must be wrong...."

"How's that?"

"Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong...."
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Tom Robinson
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In the small, tight-knit town of Maycomb, what "most folks seem to think" can quickly come to mean what is actually true. Such "group think" and the pressure it puts on individuals to join in it help to preserve and expand all sorts of prejudice. Here we see such logic at work, as Scout questions her father's choices based on what most people in the town think about those choices.

Scout is still struggling to reconcile these two things: it's difficult for her to see how "most folks" can be wrong, since it makes sense that what the majority thinks about something must be right – especially in a town small enough that it can seem like everyone thinks the same way about something, such as the Tom Robinson case. But the ellipses (three dots after Scout's sentences) seem to suggest that Scout is not at all confident in going against her father: she understands that there are elements at work that she may not have yet understood.

Chapter 12 Quotes
Lula stopped, but she said, "You ain't got no business bringin' white chillun here—they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it, Miss Cal?"

… When I looked down the pathway again, Lula was gone. In her place was a solid mass of colored people.

One of them stepped from the crowd. It was Zeebo, the garbage collector. "Mister Jem," he said, "we're mighty glad to have you all here. Don't pay no 'tention to Lula, she's contentious because Reverend Sykes threatened to church her. She's a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas an' haughty ways—we're mighty glad to have you all."
Related Characters: Lula (speaker), Jean Louise Finch (Scout), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem), Calpurnia, Reverend Sykes
Page Number: 158-159
Explanation and Analysis:

Calpurnia has invited Jem and Scout to her all-black church while Atticus is away at the state legislature. This passage pins one woman, Lula, who is suspicious of the white children's presence, against the rest of the congregation, which welcomes them. Lula is portrayed as being just as prejudiced as the white people in town, just as susceptible to judging people on the basis of their skin color rather than of their character. In this sense, the rest of the congregation is shown to surmount this small-mindedness and embrace the inherent human dignity in welcoming guests into their home or place of worship.

Nonetheless, another way to interpret this passage would involve making a distinction between the kind of "prejudice" Lula shows and the kind shown by the white members of the town. The black people in Maycomb are discriminated against and restricted in almost every facet of their lives – their church is among the only places where they can feel secure and at home. It is understandable, therefore, for Lula to express suspicion at white children interrupting this small sanctuary in a town that seems to have little room or desire for people like her. As children, of course, Jem and Scout haven't played any kind of active role in creating this double standard, but Lula's reaction only underlines how deep and structural are the inequalities that persist in the town. The novel itself does not seem to recognize this latter view of Lula's position, but that might be taken as a criticism of the novel rather than a defense of it.

Chapter 13 Quotes
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, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Aunt Alexandra
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunt Alexandra has moved into the Finch home because she believes that Scout needs more of a "feminine" influence. In addition, she begins to try to inculcate Scout with some of her own social values, values that stress class and family history over character and behavior. The Finches have, indeed, lived in Maycomb for a long time, and Alexandra believes that this means they are inherently superior to other people who have not been around for so long in the town. The way Scout describes this belief – "squatting on one patch of land" – makes clear through its tone just how skeptical she is of Alexandra's ideas. 

In other situations, Scout's childhood innocence is shown to revert back to easy prejudice, such that her father must teach her a better, more nuanced, and less prejudiced way of thinking. Here, however, her innocence makes her see more clearly, making it obvious to the reader as well just how silly the idea of moral superiority based on land ownership or family history really is. 

Chapter 16 Quotes
"Well how do you know we ain't Negroes?"

"Uncle Jack Finch says we really don't know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain't, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin' the Old Testament."

"Well if we came out durin' the Old Testament it's too long ago to matter."

"That's what I thought," said Jem, "but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black."
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Amid the excitement around the trial that's about to start, Jem and Scout talk about their own family history. In Scout's childhood innocence, once again, it becomes clear just how silly it is to seek to draw hard-and-fast borders between races, and to proclaim moral differences based on something so fragile. After all, every human being, ultimately, originated from Africa, and not only can one can never with any certitude trace one's own family history back in order to prove racial "purity" – the very idea of racial purity, as this passage shows, is simply absurd. 

Jem, slightly older than Scout, is aware both of how senseless the idea of racial purity is, as well as how entrenched an idea it is in this small town anyway. The idea that even one small "drop" of blackness makes you black – that is, according to the town's logic, morally inferior – gives the townspeople a black-and-white way to look at racial relations, and a pseudo-scientific definition to bolster their own prejudice. 

Chapter 19 Quotes
"If you had a clear conscience, why were you scared?"

"Like I says before, it weren't safe for any nigger to be in a—fix like that."

"But you weren't in a fix—you testified that you were resisting Miss Ewell. Were you so scared that she'd hurt you, you ran, a big buck like you?"

"No suh, I's scared I'd be in court, just like I am now."

"Scared of arrest, scared you'd have to face up to what you did?"

"No suh, scared I'd hafta face up to what I didn't do."
Related Characters: Tom Robinson (speaker), Mayella Ewell, Mr. Gilmer
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

As Mr. Gilmer cross-examines Tom, he is trying to make the jury give in to its racist prejudices and assume that Tom must be guilty, even in the absence of any proof. One way he does this is by suggesting that Tom must have run away because he was guilty. Here, though, Tom reminds Mr. Gilmer and the rest of the audience that for black people in the South, any uncertain situation would almost certainly be blamed on them.

As he and Mr. Gilmer go back and forth, it becomes ever clearer that Gilmer is, purposely or not, misunderstanding Tom. Tom is attempting to refer to the societal assumption that all black men must be guilty – and, indeed, that that is why he finds himself in court now. Mr. Gilmer, for his part, stubbornly clings to this very assumption of guilt whose prejudiced bases Tom is referencing, and so Gilmer takes everything Tom says as an indication that Tom is guilty.

Chapter 25 Quotes
Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell
Page Number: 323
Explanation and Analysis:

As Scout reads Mr. Underwood's editorial, which compares Tom Robinson to a mockingbird, she thinks about how prejudiced and wrong the blasé attitude of the rest of Maycomb is. Maycomb residents think Mr. Underwood is just trying to be "poetic," but here Scout summarizes what she really believes to be the lesson of the piece. Atticus's battle against prejudice had lost, not because he wasn't a good enough lawyer, and not because he didn't provide sufficient evidence to make the case for Tom's innocence, but because prejudice was so ingrained in the hearts of Maycomb people that they would never be able to be convinced that Tom wasn't guilty. In this context, any time black people are accused of anything, guilt will be the presumption – a danger that Scout is only beginning, soberly, to recognize.