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Harper Lee uses chapter two to establish several things in To Kill a Mockingbird. This is where Scout begins the first-grade. The new teacher, Miss Caroline, is distressed to see that Scout has already learned to read and write. She says, disapprovingly, “Now you tell your father not to teach you any more . . . You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage—“ Lee is using this opportunity to comment on the state of education in depression-era Maycomb County.
We also meet the Cunninghams for the first time in this chapter. The Cunninghams are important minor characters in the story, as they represent the poor white farmers that made up a lot of the south at that time. In this case we meet the first-grade son, Walter Cunningham. Walter is poor and cannot afford to bring his lunch to school. He also will not accept Miss Caroline’s offer of a quarter with which to buy lunch. Scout comes to his defense: “The Cunningham’s never took anything they can’t pay back . . . they don’t have much, but they get along on it.”
This episode gives Lee the chance to use the Cunninghams to characterize Atticus. Lee recounts a story in which Atticus did legal work for them without accepting money. Instead, the Cunningham’s paid in hickory nuts and turnip greens. Scout’s recollection of this story shows how Atticus is teaching her to be understanding of the disadvantages of other people. The Cunninghams will be very important later in the story, and this chapter lays the groundwork for it.
The chapter ends with Scout feeling sorry for Miss Caroline, who has had a difficult first day as a teacher. Her sympathy reinforces the idea that Atticus is a positive influence on his children.
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