What connotation is implied by saying, “He’s just a Cunningham” in To Kill a Mockingbird (pg. 20 or 24)? All the town folks knew the connotation but Miss Caroline did not.

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Cunninghams are poor and therefore low on the totem pole of Maycomb society.

There are certain families in Maycomb that are very well known. The Cunninghams are farmers and are fairly impoverished. They are described as an “enormous and confusing tribe domiciled in the northern part of the county” (Ch. 1). Scout's classmate, Walter Cunningham, is clearly poor.

Walter Cunningham’s face told everybody in the first grade he had hookworms. His absence of shoes told us how he got them. People caught hookworms going barefooted in barnyards and hog wallows. (Ch. 2)

Miss Caroline is not from Maycomb, and does not understand the community’s ways. She asks Walter Cunningham where his lunch is and then tries to lend him money when he doesn’t have one.  Scout explains that you do not lend money to a Cunningham.

“Walter’s one of the Cunninghams, Miss Caroline.”

“I beg your pardon, Jean Louise?”

“That’s okay, ma’am, you’ll get to know all the county folks after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back—no church baskets and no scrip stamps. (Ch. 2)

No Cunningham will take money from someone without paying it back. Scout knows about the Cunninghams because when Walter’s father needed Atticus's services he paid for them with goods instead of money. Atticus explained to Scout that the farmers were poor, and that often led to professionals like himself also being poor because no one was able to pay them.

When Walter doesn’t have any lunch, Scout invites him home to eat with her. He pours syrup over his food and she is so surprised that she comments on it. Calpurnia scolds her, and she tells her that Walter is not company, “he’s just a Cunningham-” (Ch. 3). To Scout, Walter’s lower social class makes him less significant and not worthy of special respect.

Atticus and Calpurnia do treat Walter respectfully, however.  Atticus talks with Walter as if he were an adult, and Calpurnia tells Scout that anyone who is in her house is her company and she has no right to be “so high and mighty” as to comment on things that he does as if she is better than him.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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