Chapter 1

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. 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.

In this passage, Scout describes the overwhelming effects of the hot and muggy conditions in Maycomb, Alabama, the small, fictional, “tired old town” in which the story takes place in the 1930s. When it rains, the dirt roads turn to mud, and when it’s not raining, it is stiflingly hot and buggy. The residents of the town, both humans and animals, suffer in these conditions, and signs of fatigue dominate the scene (the sagging courthouse, grass growing on sidewalks, bony mules, wilted collars, and afternoon naps). Despite bathing several times per day, ladies in Maycomb can’t escape the oppressive summer heat, their sweat mixing with talcum powder to form a “frosting” on their skin.   

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. 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.

In this passage, Scout connects the slow pace of life in Maycomb to the general poverty of the town during the Depression. People walk around aimlessly with no cause for hurry because there is “nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.” Maycomb’s sputtering local economy represents life in small-town America during the Depression.  

When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house two doors to the north of us, and the Radley Place three doors to the south. We were never tempted to break them. The Radley Place was inhabited by an unknown entity the mere description of whom was enough to make us behave for days on end; Mrs. Dubose was plain hell.

In Chapter 1, Scout describes the “boundaries” of the small neighborhood in Maycomb where she, Jem, and Dill were allowed to roam unsupervised. Although the boundaries are geographical, they are only effective because of the psychological fears they inspire. The children fear the Radley Place because of the mysterious “unknown entity” of Boo Radley, whereas they fear the “plain hell” of Mrs. Dubose’s house because they know her all too well.  

The Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house. Walking south, one faced its porch; the sidewalk turned and ran beside the lot. The house was low, was once white with a deep front porch and green shutters, but had long ago darkened to the color of the slate-gray yard around it. Rain-rotted shingles drooped over the eaves of the veranda; oak trees kept the sun away. The remains of a picket drunkenly guarded the front yard—a “swept” yard that was never swept—where johnson grass and rabbit-tobacco grew in abundance.

In this quote, Scout describes the neglect and dilapidation of the Radley Place, which contributes to the local gossip about the Radleys and reinforces the children’s fear and fascination with the place. The faded paint, drooping shingles, and overgrown yard show that no one maintains the property. The image of the lone picket that “drunkenly guarded the front yard” suggests that little remains of the fence, and it is falling down. Since no one ever sweeps (clears) the grass, tall weeds have taken over the yard. In most respects, the house appears to be abandoned even though everyone knows the Radleys still live there. 

Chapter 17

A dirt road ran from the highway past the dump, down to a small Negro settlement some five hundred yards beyond the Ewells’. It was necessary either to back out to the highway or go the full length of the road and turn around; most people turned around in the Negroes’ front yards. In the frosty December dusk, their cabins looked neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside. There were delicious smells about: chicken, bacon frying crisp as the twilight air. Jem and I detected squirrel cooking, but it took an old countryman like Atticus to identify possum and rabbit, aromas that vanished when we rode back past the Ewell residence.

Here, Scout reveals both the geographical and cultural separation between Maycomb’s black and white populations. African Americans live in their own neighborhood past the dump, far from even the Ewells, the poorest and most despised of Maycomb’s white families. The dirt road to the neighborhood, so narrow that cars can only turn around in the adjacent yards, shows how little regard the town has for its black residents. Scout marvels at the “neat and snug” cabins and the “delicious smells” coming from inside, but the delicious aromas of cooking squirrel, possum, and rabbit disappear as soon as Scout leaves the neighborhood, suggesting that white folks do not eat such foods.