When Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird
, her home state of Alabama was a hotbed of civil rights activity. Throughout the South, blacks and whites were segregated. African Americans used different drinking fountains, entrances, and restroom facilities. They also had to sit on the back of public buses and were expected to move if a white person wanted their seat. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Her momentous decision sparked a yearlong bus boycott, giving new life to the civil rights movement and propelling Martin Luther King, Jr. to national prominence. Civil rights issues were heating up across the nation, too, and so the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird
was quite timely upon its publication.
Lee, however, chose to set her story in the Great Depression of the 1930s. She may have had many reasons for placing the story in that time. Scout, the story's protagonist and narrator, is a semi-autobiographical character, and Lee was roughly the same age as Scout in the 1930s. Also, writers often choose to place a story about a current issue in the past or in the future to give readers an objective place from which to ponder the issue. Most likely, though, Lee chose the 1930s because civil rights issues didn't just begin in the late 1950s. The civil rights movement had a long history of making "baby-step[s]," as one character in the story would say, before it gelled into a cohesive effort. Racial relations were tense during the Depression because African Americans and Caucasians were competing for the same jobs in an environment where few jobs were available. Whites, particularly in the South, began to demand that they be given the jobs that were going to blacks. Furthermore, many whites actually fell prey to the mentality that blacks were stealing jobs from them, making a tense situation worse.
Beyond the issues of racial relations and the injustices that minority groups suffered during this time, Lee's novel is also a coming-of-age story, or bildungsroman. In this type of story, the central character moves from a state of innocence to one of maturity as the result of suffering and surviving various misadventures. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch is that central character, and one of her biggest concerns throughout the book is coming to terms with the expectations her society has for women. In the 1930s, women in the South were pressured to conform to a widely held ideal of "Southern womanhood." Women were treated as delicate, fragile creatures, and they were expected to act in accordance with that treatment. Scout is anything but delicate and fragile, and a good deal of the story focuses on her attempts to fit into a world that expects tomboys to wear frilly dresses and maintain a dainty disposition.
The characters grapple with other themes and questions as well: bravery and cowardice; tolerance; compassion; conscience; reason; societal expectations; and prejudice at all levels. That Lee fully develops such a broad range of themes in a relatively short novel is a testimony to her talent and the story's brilliance.