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Depression in To Kill A Mockingbird

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The Great Depression was a severe international tragedy that took place mostly in the 1930s and is deemed to be the worst economic downfall thus far. This turmoil was the longest and most wide-spread depression of the 20th century. In most countries, this disaster lasted from 1929 to the late 1930s. The story To Kill A Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee, was set in Monroeville, Alabama during this time. In the United States, the country’s economy crashed as a result of certain actions taken by the government. Through the narrator- Scout Finch- Harper Lee reveals how the Great Depression was a time where numerous families, especially the Finches, struggled to survive and makes these problems clear in showing the affects they had on the characters, including economic downturn, racial segregation, which resulted in bravery, and unemployment- all of which Lee believes to be the reasons that turned the world into chaos during this time.

Economic downturns were the main chaotic events that occurred during the Great Depression. Afterall, this period was “depressing” due to the high risk of poverty across the globe. In Scout’s neighborhood, the Ewells had low economic standings, which allowed them to have special privileges, as explained by Scout’s father, Atticus (Lee 16). Two special privileges given to the Ewells included not requiring the children to attend school and allowing Bob Ewell, the father, to hunt and trap out of season. Because neither of the parents have paying jobs, they rely on checks given to low-income American families by the government- relief checks- to pay for their expenses. However, Bob typically prefers to spend that money on alcoholic substances, explaining why the family must illegally hunt out of season for food. Also, the children, Burris and Mayella, are not motivated or forced to attend school by their parents. Instead, they only attend the first day of the school year and never return until the following year. “You ain’t sendin‘ me home, missus. I was on the verge of leavin’—I done done my time for this year,” Burris replied to his teacher, Miss Caroline, after being asked to bathe himself before the following school day (Lee 14). This reveals how the children of the Ewells family are completely aware of the fact that they are not required to go to school by their parents and are using this to their full advantage.

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Along with economic downturns occurring across the nation, racism was an issue that largely impacted African Americans during this time. The problem of racism during the Great Depression eventually lead to a much bigger theme in the novel: bravery, which is shown in the Finch family. Bravery takes many forms in To Kill a Mockingbird. The most obvious is Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson, a black field worker in the community who was accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Because he was African American and poor, many people believed that Bob was guilty. This demonstrates the great white superiority that occurred during this period. Atticus then decides to defend Tom in his case and prove him not guilty, as he is a lawyer who is a firm believer in equal rights. This eventually influenced Scout to believe that he was innocent. This represents how Lee feels about courage and bravery during this time by portraying her beliefs through Scout’s words. However, the bravery of these characters was tested the most the night that Jem and Scout were attacked by Bob Ewell, the man who was found guilty for raping his daughter. After breaking into their home with a knife in his hand, Boo Radley, a mysterious and shy neighbor who rarely ever leaves his home, springs into action to steal the knife from Bob and kill him in the process (Lee 139). “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what,” Atticus said to Jem after the death of Mrs. Dubose, the woman who Jem would read stories for aloud (Lee 141). He reveals to him that she was addicted to painkillers and had always planned to overcome her addiction before she died. The only way she was able to forget about the medications was when she was hearing someone read a story, which is why Atticus made Jem do so. This makes Jem perceive the meaning of courage, with it now being persistence through difficult times.

During the Great Depression, the unemployment rate across the United States skyrocketed. Scout’s family was drastically affected by this. The Great Depression hit the rural South hardest, where To Kill A Mockingbird is set. Fifty percent of all African Americans, most of whom lived in the South, were unemployed by 1932, according to Before the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created in 1935, it was nearly impossible for anyone to find a job. This created much stress and anxiety among those who needed to support themselves and their family. For instance, Bob Ewell is an unemployed member of Maycomb’s poorest family. Along with being stuck in an economic turmoil because he doesn’t have a job, Bob introduces other ideologies of the worst of the South, including ignorance and racial- prejudice. As a result of acting this certain way, Scout views Bob as being a man that was sent to roam Earth straight from the devil and quickly discovers all his “evil intent” (Lee 153). This explains how Lee feels about those who believe that they are superior than others and her beliefs regarding white supremacy, viewing it as completely wrong and unacceptable, especially when one is unemployed, as this was such a large issue during the Great Depression.

As a result of the Great Depression, the storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird was greatly affected because of the problems that were introduced, which is shown through the narrator, Scout Finch. These issues include economic downturn, racial segregation, which resulted in bravery, and unemployment- ideas that Lee believes were the main cause of the chaos that occurred in the world during this time. The resolution of the novel suggests that humanity will survive if everyone views each other as individuals and have empathy toward one another. While the ending implies that Scout has had much character development throughout the novel, Lee leaves a larger picture at the end, showing the unsolved problem of racism and economic inequality in the South.

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Depression in To Kill A Mockingbird. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Depression in To Kill A Mockingbird.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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