How would you describe the Cunninghams in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Let us go by the book.

The Cunninghams of Old Sarum, the northern part of the county, are well-known enough in the small community of Maycomb to be addressed and recognized on a last-name basis. 

They are described as,

An enormous and confusing tribe. . . that formed the nearest thing to a gang ever seen in Maycomb.

We learn that they "hung around the barbershop," gambled, and that the townsfolk were interested enough in their business to know exactly where they would hang out: the Drew-Drop Inn & Fishing Camp. The Cunninghams were also known to "experiment with stumphole whiskey" and were generally considered to be "bad company" for the mainstream folk. 

On a positive note, the Cunninghams were neither abusive nor belligerent, especially when compared to the Ewells, for example. The Cunninghams were known for never taking any favors that they could not pay back. At one point, they requested the services of Atticus Finch, and they paid him back with goods from their farm, which was the only way they could ever pay. Nevertheless, they always paid.

Even Walter Jr. would not take a quarter from Miss Caroline for lunch because he knew that, despite his hunger and lack of food, he would never be able to repay the favor. 

Aunt Alexandra describes the Cunninghams as "drunk and disorderly," and Calpurnia is aware of their lower social standing. She still makes sure that her Southern hospitality toward Walter Jr. is on point. 

The Cunninghams are so notorious, or rather, well-known, that they are used as a measure of comparison. For instance, Jem describes the jury of the Robinson trial this way:

Sunburned, lanky, they seemed to be all farmers,
but this was natural: townfolk rarely sat on juries, they were either struck or excused.
One or two of the jury looked vaguely like dressed-up Cunninghams.

Moreover, the Cunninghams' legal woes come from a somewhat jocular source:

The Cunninghams married the Coninghams until the spelling of the names was academic— academic until a Cunningham disputed a
Coningham over land titles and took to the law.

In an even more interesting note, which is also a personal favorite excerpt to read,

Jeems Cunningham testified that his mother spelled it Cunningham on deeds and things, but she was really a Coningham; she was an uncertain speller. . . . After nine hours of listening to the eccentricities of Old Sarum’s inhabitants, Judge Taylor threw the case out of court.

All these facts lead us to declare the Cunninghams the
bucolic, colorful characters that set the tone and atmosphere of small communities. They are so open and honest that they serve as a mirror through which the society of Maycomb views itself, to the point that the Cunninghams are used as a measuring scale for their own actions.

If we were to describe them, the salient words would be,

  • honest
  • open
  • somewhat feral
  • careless of social expectations, or rather,
  • ignorant of social norms
  • bucolic
  • jocular
  • circumscribed to their personal, established parameters
  • dignified (in that they pay for what they owe)
  • simple

Still, the Cunninghams are essentially the stuff that humanity is made of: sacrifice, frustration, sadness, vice, happiness, controversy, joy, and anger. They are humanity at its best and proof that humanity fails at times but wins at other times. They are the source of life of Maycomb, whether the townsfolk care to admit it or not. They are the healthier opposites of the feuding, angry, chaotic Ewells. The Cunninghams are all of us, at some point in time in our lives. 

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Cunninghams are a hard-working family who have integrity and respect for others throughout the community. They are poor farmers who have suffered economically during the Great Depression. They choose to barter for services throughout the community instead of paying cash. They never take what they cannot pay back, which is evident when Walter Cunningham Jr. refuses to take a quarter from his teacher because he knows he cannot return it the next day. They understand the value of hard work, and Walter Cunningham Jr. is knowledgeable regarding crops, the land, animals, and any type of farming equipment. They dress, act, and eat informally which is evident by Walter Cunningham's table manners. Mr. Cunningham is from Old Sarum and has a tendency to "follow the crowd" which is why he becomes influenced by "mob mentality" in Chapter 15. Nonetheless, Mr. Cunningham is an understanding, respectful individual who treats others the way he would want to be treated. 

katemschultz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Cunninghams fall into the category of the "working poor" in Maycomb. They are farmers that have been hit hard by the Depression. However, they are a proud family and will not take anything they cannot pay back, as is evidenced when Walter Cunningham, one of Scout's classmates, refuses to take a quarter from Miss Caroline to pay for lunch. Atticus has done some legal work for Mr. Walter Cunningham, Senior, and Mr. Cunningham repaid Atticus with goods from the farm--the only way he could repay Atticus.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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