The fact that Harper Lee's, To Kill a Mockingbird, takes place around the mid-1900s sets up a realistic background for the racial events that occur in the story. Throughout the novel, there is a definite tension to be recognized among different classes and cultures of people. Since the main character, Scout Finch, has a father who is directly amidst this tension and aggression because of his profession, she is forced to accept reality and mature faster than may have otherwise been necessary. Trying to right the wrongs of the justice system in Maycomb County is what sets this family in the spotlight. As a young girl growing up in an old, traditional southern Alabama town, Scout is subjected to a number of learning experiences that carry her to an age of maturity by the end of the novel.
Maycomb, the county seat of Maycomb County, is a very quiet, southern town where things have continued in the same fashion for years and years. It is a "tired, old town" with a desire for peace and stability (5). Scout, who is also the narrator, describes how slowly and nonchalantly the people move from place to place. "They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything" (5). From this description it is easy to see why the remark was made that "Maycomb County had nothing to fear but fear itself" (6). However, the quiet, delicate atmosphere was about to change.
There was a black man named, Tom Robinson, who was to be put on trial for raping a white woman. The color of their skin, seemingly insignificant, was far from being so. Being that this county was old and rich in tradition, it carried on the prejudices that had long ago been established by the inhabitants' descendants. After observing her surroundings for awhile, Scout makes a comment to her neighbor, Maudie Atkinson in regards to this. "The folks on our street are all old. Jem and me's the only children around here" (90). Since most of them are old, they are very set in their ways and not likely to accept change. With the exception of a few residents, they all maintain the same attitude towards black people.
This attitude is demonstrated numerous times throughout the book. There have been many rumors spread about a man named Boo Radley, one of Scout's other neighbors. When Miss Maudie is questioned by Scout about these rumors she responds, "That is three-fourths colored folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford" (45). Another example of this prejudice is when Francis, Scout's antagonizing cousin, makes a remark about her father, Atticus. "…but now he's turned out a nigger-lover we'll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb agin. He's ruinin' the family, that's what he's doin'" (83). Atticus is assumed to be a "nigger-lover" because he is a lawyer and was assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man. After witnessing the injustices and prejudices of the townspeople Scout's older brother, Jem, starts to come to a conclusion about Boo Radley, a man who never leaves his house. He says, "I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time…it's because he wants to stay inside" (227). Jem is implying that it is to get away from the injustice and corruption of the town and the world in general.
Because Scout is forced to deal with the prejudice and injustice, Atticus tries very hard to teach her lessons that will help her with this. These very important lessons often result from insignificant events, but they are helpful in dealing with events that occur later. One of Scout's most important experiences is learning how to have respect for individualities of human beings. She first learns this lesson when she begins school. Scout has been able to read for quite some time because she always looked over her father's shoulder when he read. However, in her first grade class, the teacher does not expect her to be able to read yet and, in fact, does not want her to. She has a new teaching method, and Scout seems to be ruining it for her. This situation causes much tension