According to Jem in Chapter 23 of To Kill a Mockingbird, what puts someone in one social category or another? What are some problems with his conclusions?

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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jem and Scout spend some quality time debating the social order of Maycomb following Aunt Alexandra's refusal to allow Walter Cunningham Jr. to come and play at the Finch house "Because--he--is--trash..." Scout is left in tears, and Jem tries to calm her with a Tootsie Roll and a good look at his newly-sprouted chest hair. Scout is confused about why her aunt doesn't consider Walter an appropriate playmate for her, and Jem thinks he has the answer. He has decided that there are four social classes in Maycomb:

  • "... the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors..."
  • "... the Cunninghams out in the woods..."
  • "... the Ewells down at the dump...
  • "... and the Negroes."

Additionally, each class dislikes the class below it.

"... our kind of folks don't like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don't like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the colored folks."  (Chapter 23)

Jem is not totally off base here, but he further clouds the issue by declaring that "Old Family" background depends upon

"... how long your family's been readin' and writin'. Scout, I've studied this real hard and that's the only reason I can think of."  (Chapter 23)

Jem doesn't seem to understand that it's not a person's education which decides his social class, it's the other way around. The lower classes--particularly the Cunninghams and Negroes--are forced to abandon their hopes for a quality education: the Cunninghams because they are farmers, and their children are needed to work in the fields insteat of attending school; and the Negroes because segregation laws prevent them from attending school with white children. Scout's idea about the social order is more simple--but also more hopeful. She believes there's "just one kind of folks. Folks."

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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