Maycomb is a small town with all the stereotypical characteristics of small-town life. Most notably everyone knows everyone else’s business, which leads mostly to endless and generally harmless gossip—but more importantly, it makes the community extremely intimate and close-knit. Throughout the first part of the novel, these qualities cause Scout and Jem to believe that Maycomb is nothing more than an insular, safe, intimate community. While they’re not entirely wrong about the truth of this, as the novel progresses, it goes to great lengths to encourage both the reader and its young protagonists to understand that Maycomb is composed of a variety of individuals. Thus, the town should not be idealized as a picturesque small town, but considered more like the individuals who live in it: something that contains both good and bad.
In many ways, Scout isn’t wrong about her perceptions of Maycomb. It is intimate, tight-knit, and for the most part, safe. In part, this is because of Maycomb’s specific history. Because of some questionable dealings during attempts to establish the county seat, Maycomb became the county seat for no good reason—indeed, it was far away from any rivers, the only real mode of transportation at the time, and so it became an island of civilization in a sea of wilderness and agriculture. Being an isolated community, in addition to being the county seat, led to the development of a number of eccentricities and of an extremely insular community. In this sense, there’s a degree of truth to the idea that each family in Maycomb has a “streak” of some sort, or some defining quality that separates it from other families (though Atticus also notes that most people in Maycomb are somehow related to each other, muddying this assessment). This also leads to the development of, an open-door community in the town, in which everyone spends time on their porch and visiting with their neighbors, thereby building community through this essentially required element of social engagement. For these reasons, Scout always knows what to expect when she encounters someone and feels safe playing in her neighborhood and around town. In her experience, everyone would look out for her if a threat of some sort were to arise.
Until the novel begins, Scout doesn’t see anything wrong with the way that Maycomb is, and indeed, doesn’t believe that there’s anything negative about it. She, like many in the community, finds the Radley family odd because they don’t socialize or attend church—a way of thinking ultimately exposes a variety of other ways in which Maycomb may be safe and close-knit, but also vehemently punishes those who violate social codes and Maycomb traditions. This can be as benign as local children taking advantage of a set of adult sisters’ insistence on having a cellar, a peculiarity in Maycomb, by moving all their furniture into it one Halloween as a prank. More sinister is the way in which many in Maycomb, adults and children alike, take issue with Atticus’s choice to take defending Tom Robinson seriously. Maycomb is a segregated town and, Scout discovers, cares little for its black residents, especially when someone like Atticus demands that white residents treat their black neighbors with the same kind of compassion and civility shown to white people in Maycomb. This is why, especially on the day of Robinson’s trial and in the weeks after, Scout and Jem begin to think that Maycomb is uglier than they thought, as their friends, neighbors, and even their teachers show themselves to be shockingly racist and callous.
However, both Atticus and Miss Maudie encourage Scout and Jem to understand that Robinson’s trial does represent the beginning of positive change, as the jury—made up of Maycomb’s rural population—did take hours to reach their verdict, rather than just a few minutes. Atticus suggests that this indicates there’s hope for Maycomb to improve in the future, and in doing so, extend its good qualities and sense of care to all of its residents, regardless of skin color. Meanwhile, Miss Maudie asks Scout and Jem to think of and acknowledge all the people in Maycomb who did everything in their power to give Tom Robinson a fair trial in spite of efforts on the contrary, including Judge Taylor, Mr. Tate, and Atticus himself. With this, Miss Maudie and Atticus truly encourage Jem, Scout, and the reader to understand that Maycomb has the potential to undergo the exact same kind of improvement that the novel suggests individuals can. Maycomb’s residents can grow, develop, and put aside harmful ideas in favor of those that respect the humanity, dignity, and right to life of all people. It may not be there yet, but just as with Scout herself, who still has a long way to go in terms of coming of age and maturing, Maycomb is nevertheless on the right path and beginning to change for the better.
Small Town Southern Life ThemeTracker
Small Town Southern Life Quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird
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.
“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?"
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” Atticus said.
“Atticus, you must be wrong…”
“Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong…”
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.