Maycomb's Ways: Setting as Moral Universe

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most commonly taught books in American schools. This complex novel can be the entry point for meaningful learning, but it demands a careful and intentional approach in the classroom. We describe the key principles behind our approach here.


Literary critic Wayne C. Booth writes that the plots of great stories “are built out of the characters’ efforts to face moral choices. In tracing those efforts, we readers stretch our own capacities for thinking about how life should be lived.”1 In order to understand the moral choices depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, we must first look at both the identities of those making moral choices and the context in which they are made. In other words, we must start by examining character and setting.

Just as character includes more than surface traits, setting goes well beyond simply establishing the time and place of the novel. Meaningfully understanding the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird requires understanding the moral universe in which the story takes place.  In other words, it requires having a sense of the “rules, constraints, possibilities, potential conflicts and possible consequences”2 that affect the choices the characters make.

This lesson explores the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird in order to understand the moral choices that characters make in the novel. You'll find activities that use our original video about the Jim Crow South, Studs Terkel radio clips offering first-hand accounts of the Great Depression, and readings from Teaching Mockingbird.




  1. Looking at race and segregation in Alabama during the Jim Crow Era

    Read ExcerptAtticus explaining to Scout why he must take the Robinson case seriously (Chapter 9)

    How does Atticus explain his choice?  Why is there so much tension in Maycomb (and in the Finch household) about this choice?

    Watch the video: "Understanding Jim Crow"

    How does this video deepen our understanding of the “moral universe” in which Atticus must make choices about his defense of Tom Robinson?  What does this video help us understand about the consequences of his choice?

  2. Looking at class in a small southern town in the 1930s

    Read Excerpt: Atticus describes the Ewells to Scout (Chapter 3)

    What does this passage tell us about the “moral universe” of Maycomb?  Who is part of the “common folk” and who isn’t? 

    Listen to Studs Terkel first-hand accounts:


    Race in US History

    Studs Terkel Interview with Emma Tiller

    Studs Terkel interviews Emma Tiller, a cook who describes how African Americans would feed people who were in need during the Great Depression, without any regard to their skin color.

    Race in US History

    Studs Terkel Interview with Virginia Foster Durr

    In an interview with Studs Terkel, Virginia Foster Durr, a prominent American civil rights activist, reflects on life during the Great Depression, particularly the way that people on government relief felt shame and guilt over their own suffering and poverty, rather than blaming the capitalist system.

    Race in US History

    Studs Terkel Interview with Eileen Barthe

    In this segment of an interview conducted by Studs Terkel, Eileen Barthe, a government relief case worker during the Great Depression, remembers an experience that caused a recipient of relief to face deep humiliation.

    How do these perspectives change or deepen our understanding of the Ewells’ predicament?  How do they affect our understanding of Atticus’s attitude toward the Ewells?

    Read text excerpt“Being Well Born” from New Civic Biology by George William Hunter

  3. Exploring gender expectations in Maycomb

    Read Excerpt: Aunt Alexandra describing what it means to be a lady (Chapter 9)

    What is Aunt Alexandra’s vision for what is “lady-like”? What metaphor does Alexandra use to describe the role that Scout should play in her father’s life because she is a girl? How does her repetition of the metaphor help establish her tone and indicate her feelings about Alexandra’s attempt to influence her? 

    Read text excerpt"The Southern Lady and Belle" from The Companion to Southern Literature by Joseph Flora and Lucinda MacKethan

    How does the description of this historical social type help us understand Aunt Alexandra’s perspective?  What does it suggest about both the pressures on Scout and her choices in response to those pressures?

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