Maycomb's Ways: Setting as Moral Universe | Facing History & Ourselves
The exterior of a theatre called "Rex Theatre for Colored People."

Maycomb's Ways: Setting as Moral Universe

Students explore how race, class, and gender create the moral universe that the characters inhabit in To Kill a Mockingbird.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Racism


About This Lesson

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.

  • 1Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press,), 187, 1988, accessed April 24, 2014.
  • 2Ibid, 71.

This lesson includes:

  • 3 activities 
  • 1 video
  • 3 audio
  • 2 readings

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

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.

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Lesson Plans


Read Excerpt: Atticus 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?

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:

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

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?

Materials and Downloads

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