In To Kill a Mockingbird, what is Walter Cunningham like? What does his behavior during lunch suggest about his home life?
Walter Cunningham, a classmate of Scout's, is from an extremely poor family. He is so poor he doesn't even have shoes to wear. We first see him in an awkward situation at school when his teacher asks where his lunch is. He is too ashamed to admit that he hasn't any, but the class know.
He had none today, nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day. He had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life.
Scout then gets into trouble when she endeavours to explain the situation to the teacher but isn't able to make her understand. She is consequently annoyed at Walter but Jem intervenes and smooths things over by inviting Walter to lunch.
Walter's behaviour at lunch shows that he is ravenous, and probably has little to eat at home. He has no idea of table etiquette and pours syrup all over his food, mystifying Scout. She is too young to realize that he does this because he is so hungry.
The Cunninghams obviously suffer from hardship and poverty, but are seen to be fundamentally decent. True, Walter's father does head a party to try to lynch Tom Robinson at the jail, but he is disarmed by the uncomprehending Scout. Later the children learn, to their astonishment, that another of the Cunninghams who served on the jury at Tom's trial 'was rarin' for an outright acquittal'. This would appear to show that, although temporarily swayed by mob mentality and unable to prevail against the prejudiced majority at the trial, the Cunninghams have at least an inkling of true justice.
Walter Cunningham is one of Scout's classmates in first grade. On their first day of school, Miss Caroline, the teacher, offers him some money to buy lunch and then to pay her back the next day. Walter refuses, so Scout deems it necessary to explain to the teacher the following about the Cunninghams:
"The Cunninghams never took anything they can't pay back--no church baskets and no scrip stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don't have much, but they get along on it" (20).
Thus, Walter was honoring his family by not taking the money for lunch. But when he's invited to someone's house for dinner, that's an invitation that a guest does not have to repay, so he goes to Jem and Scout's.
The guest-host relationship is a non-verbal understanding that whatever a guest asks for, the guest gets without any complaining from the host. Atticus and Jem know that, but it's apparent when Scout objects to Walter's drowning vegetables in syrup that she does not know this. While Calpurnia sets Scout straight in the kitchen, and teaches her to be a better host, Walter enjoys those vegetables because that's probably the only time he gets to taste sugar. His family probably never buys candy or syrup because those things are luxuries. Walter must have known that the Finches were well enough off to ask for syrup and whether or not he knew that it didn't go on vegetables doesn't matter. The fact is, the boy lives without so much, and he was probably so hungry, that it doesn't matter what you eat when you're hungry. In fact, when someone is hungry, anything looks good to eat--drowned in syrup or not!
The first time Walter Cunningham's personality is revealed is in school. He is in the same class as Scout. He does not where shoes, however is clothes are clean. As the teacher inspects the children's lunches she sees that Walter does not have any lunch, she offers him a quarter to which she expects to be paid back. Walter would not accept the money, he shows an unashamed self respect and knows he could not pay the teacher back. When Walter is invited to dinner he is excited, but then becomes uneasy. After being reassured he joins Jen and Scout at their home for dinner. Walter fills his plate without reservation, even pouring syrup on his vegetables. Clearly he is joyful for the meal, indicating that there are no such meals at the Cunningham home. The power and beauty of Walter's personality comes to fruition when Scout reminds his father as he was ready to attack her father about that dinner, not to insult, brag or disrespect Mr. Cunningham but silently suggest he look at other points of view.