What are the characteristics of Mr. Walter Cunningham Senior in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Like many of the secondary characters in To Kill A Mockingbird, Mr. Walter Cunningham is a mix of traits, both good and bad.

On the good side, Mr. Cunningham is clearly differentiated from the white trash Ewings, who rely on charity to get by. Scout makes it very clear...

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Like many of the secondary characters in To Kill A Mockingbird, Mr. Walter Cunningham is a mix of traits, both good and bad.

On the good side, Mr. Cunningham is clearly differentiated from the white trash Ewings, who rely on charity to get by. Scout makes it very clear that Mr. Cunningham will not accept any help for himself or his family. He has impressed that ethic of self-reliance on his children, who adhere to it as a point of pride. Young Walter, who can't afford to bring a lunch to school, would rather go hungry than accept a quarter from his teacher, and Mr. Cunningham himself pays Atticus for his services in turnips, wood, and other products from his farm because he has no cash to spare—but he does pay.

Nevertheless, the honor of the hardworking but poor Mr. Cunningham is a double-edged sword. The same honor that insists he make it on his own and pay his own way also leads him to want to lynch Tom Robinson to defend Mayella's honor. His racial prejudice is such that he assumes Tom must be guilty of rape, and he doesn't want to await a trial. Just as Scout does about Boo Radley, Mr. Cunningham jumps to conclusions based on hearsay.

Mr. Cunningham's humanity prevents him from lynching a man defended by Scout and Atticus, but Lee's point is that a trait such as honor that leads a person to behave well in some circumstances can also be a weak point that leads to bad behavior: we are all flawed and need to treat each other with compassion and generosity.

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Walter Cunningham is depicted as a poor, struggling farmer with integrity. Towards the beginning of the story, Scout defends Walter Cunningham's son during lunchtime when he refuses to accept Miss Caroline's quarter because he cannot pay her back. Scout is familiar with the Cunninghams because Walter Sr. was one of Atticus's clients. Scout elaborates on her unique knowledge of the Cunningham family by mentioning,

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.

Scout then explains how Walter Cunningham paid Atticus with stovewood, hickory nuts, smilax and holly, and turnip greens in exchange for his services. Given Scout's description of Walter Cunningham's interaction with Atticus and his son's behavior, the audience views him in a favorable light.

Despite Walter's positive character traits, he is also depicted as a violent racist. In chapter 15, Walter Cunningham leads a lynch mob to the Maycomb jailhouse in hopes of killing Tom Robinson before the trial. However, Atticus is waiting outside of Tom's cell and refuses to leave. Suddenly, Scout runs out into the middle of the lynch mob and tensions rise. After Scout attempts to spark a conversation with Walter Cunningham, he finally sympathizes with Atticus's difficult situation and instructs the mob to disperse. In the next chapter, Atticus elaborates on Walter's complex personality by telling his children

Mr. Cunningham’s basically a good man ... he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.

Following the trial, Atticus tells Jem that one of the Cunninghams was arguing for an outright acquittal and provides further insight into Walter's family and morals. Scout mentions,

He [Atticus] said the Cunninghams hadn’t taken anything from or off of anybody since they migrated to the New World. He said the other thing about them was, once you earned their respect they were for you tooth and nail.

Overall, Walter Cunningham is portrayed as a relatively honorable man, who does the best with what he has and values integrity. Although he is a trustworthy, honest man, Walter Cunningham is a racist, who is susceptible to mob mentality.

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Walter Cunningham is poor, but honorable.

Walter Cunningham is a big man, and one of the ones who attend the lynch mob that goes after Atticus to get Tom Robinson.

We are first introduced to the Cunningham family through his son Walter.  Walter is poor, and has hookworms because he does not wear shoes.

He had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life. (ch 2)

Walter’s family does care though.  Even though he can’t afford lunch or shoes, he does have a “clean shirt and neatly mended overalls” (ch 2).  Unlike the Ewells, for example, Mr. Cunningham does send his son to school.

Scout lectures Miss Caroline on the Cunningham etiquette and family values.

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" (Chapter 2).

Scout invites Walter to lunch, and he forgets he’s a Cunningham.  Walter’s maturity reflects well on his father.  He is a dignified, well-behaved young man.  To Scout, Finches are better than Cunninghams, but Calpurnia reminds her that it is one’s behavior that matters.

Mr. Cunningham is a hard worker.  Because he is an honorable man, he wants to protect young Mayella’s honor by lynching Tom Robinson so there is no trial.

Mr. Cunningham wore no hat, and the top half of his forehead was white in contrast to his sunscorched face, which led me to believe that he wore one most days. He shifted his feet, clad in heavy work shoes. (ch 15)

While Mr. Cunningham is surprised that a little girl showed up and started talking about his son, he also is polite enough to acknowledge her.  Her presence shamed him into leaving, because the reality of the situation hits him and he sees what he is doing.  He does not want a child to get hurt, and in fact does not want anyone to get hurt.

The fact that the mob respects Cunningham shows his standing in the community, and the fact that he leaves shows his strength of character. 

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Walter Sr. is a poor farmer who is too proud to take charity.  When he hires Atticus to represent him in his entailment (a property inheritance case), he cannot pay him in cash; so he pays him in weekly installments of foodstuffs (walnuts and such).

Later, Walter Sr. joins up with the boys from Old Sarum to form the lynch mob.  He follows the crowd when it comes to racism and, therefore, represents blind vengeance.  When Scout calls him out by name and mentions his son's name, he loses his anonymity in the mob.  He feels ashamed that a young girl has more courage than he, and so he backs down, and the vigilantes disperse.

In the end, we are led to believe that he is the lone juror who kept the others from unanimously voting to convict Tom.  Finally, he bowed to public pressure again, but it shows that the Finches have convinced him to treat others as you would want to be treated.

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