To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers
by Harper Lee

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Compare and contrast Walter Cunningham and Burris Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Walter Cunningham and Burris Ewell are both poor, but the behavior of their families is completely different.

We are introduced to two poor families when Scout starts school.  Burris Ewell is Bob Ewell’s son, and Walter Cunningham is Walter Cunningham’s son.  Burris is described as a “hulking individual.”  He has lice, and no shoes, and is dirty.  He has parasites from walking around in pigpens with no shoes.  Burris comes to school on the first day of school and fulfills his obligation, and then does not come back until the next year.  His family lives behind the dump and his father collects welfare checks and spends them on alcohol.

Walter, on the other hand, is a poor farmer, but a respectable one.

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. (ch 2)

Walter refuses to accept the quarter the teacher tries to lend him, because a Cunningham does not take anything he can’t pay back.  He is mature, and can talk to Atticus about farming like a grown man.  All in all, he is a little gentleman and his family is mostly honorable.  Although Walter Cunningham, Sr. does lead the lynch mob that tries to take Tom Robinson, he stops when Scout tries to talk to him, proving himself to also be a good man.

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mwestwood, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Walter Cunningham is a poor white boy, while Burris Ewell is poor white trash. Though poor, the Cunningham family yet has values and dignity. Scout narrates,

If he held his mouth right, Mr. Cunningham could get a WPA (public works' job), but his land would go to ruin if he left it, and he was willing to go hungry to keep his land and vote as he pleased.

But, in the Ewell family there is neither. The lazy, degenerate Bob Ewell collects a welfare check, wastes it by drinking away much of it, and his children are neglected physically and spiritually, living in squalor near the town dump.

Without parents to direct his life, Burris comes up as any weed would, pushing where he can and defending himself with insolence. In contrast to Walter, who is clean and keeps quiet when Miss Caroline questions him about not having his lunch, Burris Ewell is filthy and has no respect for adults. When an appalled Miss Caroline tells Burris to go home, bathe, and rid himself of his head lice, he stands and laughs rudely:

"You ain't sendin' me home, misus. I was on the verge of leavin'--I done done my time for this year."

When Miss Caroline asks what he means, Burris replies with a "contemptuous snort." Further, when Miss Caroline tells Burris to sit down, he retorts "contemptuously," "You try and make me, missus."

In contrast, Walter is able to converse as an adult with Atticus about farms when he is invited to lunch, and he is respectful in his tone. Indeed, there is a clear difference between the two poor boys.

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