How does Harper Lee contrast fragmented, dysfunctional families in chapters 1-4 of To Kill A Mockingbird?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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When Scout commences her first year of school, she tries to be the explicator of the social dynamics of Maycomb, but her teacher, Miss Caroline, is not receptive to a child's aphorisms. 

When Miss Caroline attempts to organize the lunch period, she asks those with lunch to put it on top of their desks.  As she traverses the rows, inspecting the childrens' lunches, she notices that Walter Cunningham does not have anything. Scout narrates,

Walter Cunningham's face told everybody in the first grade he had hookworms.  His absence of shoes told us how he got them....If Walter had owned any shoes he would have worn them the first day of school and then discarded them until mid-winter. He did have on a clean shirt and neatly mended overalls.

When asked if he forgot his lunch, Walter sets his jaw, but finally mumbles "Yeb'm."  But, when Miss Caroline offers him a quarter with which to buy lunch, he politely refuses it. With the urging of a classmate, Scout attempts explanation,

"...he's a Cunningham....The Cunninghams never took anything that they can't pay back...they get along on what they have.  They don't have much, but they get along on it."

Further, Scout explains about the Cunninghams' woes with mortgages and entailment.  They are so proud, however, that they will accept no Public Works Program jobs offered to many who were improvised during the Great Depression.

Polite, but proud and honest, clean, but poor, Walter Cunningham is in stark contrast to the crude, filthy, disrespectful, arrogant Burris Ewell, who is not just "poor," but "poor white trash."  Fittingly, his dysfunctional family lives right by the dump whereas the Cunninghams live in the country outside town. After lunch, Miss Caroline is appalled to find lice in the hair of this unkempt child.  Another student assumes the role of explicator:

"He's one of the Ewells, ma'am,...Whole school's full of 'em.  They come first day every year and then leave.  The truant lady gets 'em here 'cause she threatens 'em with the sheriff, but she's give up tryin' to hold 'em....Ain't got no mother...and their paw's right contentious."

Little Chuck Little tries to explain, too, that Burris is very mean. When Miss Caroline threatens to report him to the principal, Burris "slouched leisurely" to the door, cursing her until she cries; then he leaves.  Certainly, then, the contrast between the poor, but clean and well-mannered Walter Cunningham who has a normal, loving family and Burris Ewell, who is but a gamin who must fend for himself with no mother and an alcoholic father who uses the welfare checks for liquor is sharp.

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