To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the 1930s in Maycomb, Alabama, a town so small and insular that, according to Scout, her father is “related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town.” Scout devotes the very beginning of her narrative to a description of her southern heritage, revealing that her English ancestor, Simon Finch, a slave-holding, enterprising skinflint, founded Finch’s Landing, a cotton plantation where generations of Finches, including Atticus, grew up. Twenty miles east of Finch’s Landing, Maycomb is home to old southern families whose roots, traditions, and biases run deep. Each family name carries its own accepted identity in town: the Haverfords, for example, have “a name synonymous with jackass”; the Cunninghams are considered poor but very proud; and the Ewells are cruel and lazy.
The town itself is slow, hot, and uneventful in Scout’s memory; the men work from morning till evening, the women stay at home, and the children go to school and then play outside. In Maycomb, says Scout, “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…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.”
Racial segregation is an accepted way of life for the townspeople. The blacks in Maycomb live in their own part of town, attend their own churches and schools, have low-paying, menial jobs, and are implicitly considered inferior by the majority white segment of the town. The whites use pejorative terms to refer to the black Characters, and public buildings such as the courthouse have separate areas for the whites and for the “colored.”
Much of the action, which occurs over the course of two years, takes place at the Finch home, where Scout lives with Atticus, Jem, and, during the day, their housekeeper, Calpurnia. Atticus has raised the children with Calpurnia’s assistance since his wife died of a heart attack when Scout was two years old. Dill lives next door to the Finches during the summer, when he visits his Aunt Rachel Haverford. The rest of the action occurs at school, at the courthouse, and in the black part of town.
The Radley Place, a source of fear and drama for the children, is located down the street from the Finch home. According to local legend, the Radley Place was once home to Mr. and Mrs. Radley, an aloof, stern couple, and their son Arthur. While still a teen-ager, Arthur joined his buddies on a lark, in locking a town official in the courthouse outhouse one night. Although the offense was trivial, the Radleys disciplined their son by secluding him in their home for fifteen years. Then, the story goes, when Arthur was thirty-three years old, he nonchalantly stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors. After this incident, Arthur was kept for a time in the courthouse basement and was eventually transferred back to his home, where he continues to live in isolation from the community. Although Arthur’s cruel father has died, Arthur’s older brother, Nathan Radley, an equally severe man, now occupies the Radley Place. Arthur, known as Boo to the superstitious, fearful neighbors, becomes a creepy object of fascination for the children, and the Radley Place is considered haunted property; as Scout explains: “People said that [Boo] went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them…A baseball hit into the Radley yard was a lost ball and no Questions asked.”