In To Kill a Mockingbird, what does it mean to "buy cotton"?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, there are certain euphemisms that are employed and "to buy cotton" is one of them. This phrase is used in reference to Mr. Radley as Scout narrates in Chapter 1

I never knew how old Mr. Radley made his living- Jem said he "bought cotton," a polite term for doing nothing… 

Of course, in the 1930's, many a person threw a bag around the shoulders and picked cotton to make some pittance with which they tried to feed their children.

Oddly, all that anyone sees of Mr. Radley is his departure at eleven-thirty each weekday and his return by noon with a large grocery sack that neighbors assume contains groceries. Curiously, while Mr. Radley is no more productive than Bob Ewell, and apparently the recipient of a welfare check, as well, the neighborhood does not seem to be a as disapproving of the Radleys as they are of the Ewells. Perhaps, it is because Mr. Radley is not a drunkard and a blowhard, and the reclusive Radleys bother no one.

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gmuss25's profile pic

gmuss25 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Distinguished Educator

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As was mentioned in the previous post, to "buy cotton" is an expression that means that someone does nothing. In Chapter 1, Scout is describing the Radley family and mentions that Jem told her that Mr. Radley "bought cotton." In the Southern town of Maycomb, this expression is a polite way of saying that he is unemployed and does nothing. After Mr. Radley dies, Boo's brother Nathan comes to live with him. Nathan Radley also does nothing and it is said that he too "bought cotton." The Radley family is unlike the other families in Maycomb. They do not socialize, work with others, or act friendly towards their neighbors. After a series of unfortunate events, Mr. Radley decided to keep Boo inside the home as a form of punishment. When Mr. Radley dies and Nathan Radley inherits the property, he does the same thing.

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