How might one best describe Mrs. Viola Cullinan, the white woman in whose service Margaret (Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) learned "the finer touches around the home"?

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lhc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mrs. Cullinan's life situation didn't appear to have anything like what she might have hoped for as a young woman.  She was from Virginia, and still embraced the formal ideals usually associated with the Old South, or what is sometimes called the Antebellum South, that is to say, the Southern plantation lifestyle of wealthy landowners prior to the Civil War.  Mrs. Cullinan is not very attractive, leading Maya to remark that she thinks Mrs. Cullinan was lucky to find any husband at all when Miss Glory explains that Cullinan married "beneath" her social station. Mrs. Cullinan couldn't have children, and apparently her husband had found an alternative, as two local girls Maya was familiar with were said to be Mr. Cullinan's daughters by a local black woman.

Mrs. Cullinan has very rigid strictures about the timing of a day's activities, such as dinner, and the use of proper dishware and accoutrements for specific purposes, and Maya gets an education on these topics under the tutelage of Miss Glory:

She explained the dishware, silverware, and servants' bells. The large round bowl in which soup was served wasn't a soup bowl, it was a tureen. There were gob-lets, sherbet glasses, ice-cream glasses, wine glasses, green glass coffee cups with matching saucers, and water glasses. . . .Soup spoons, gravy boat,butter knives, salad forks, and carving platter were additions to my vocabulary and in fact almost represented a new language.

Maya referred to her time working in Cullinan's home as a type of "finishing school", and stayed there until Cullinan became angry and used a racial slur toward her.   

Read the study guide:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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