What are some character traits of the mob of men who meet Atticus at the jail in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter 15 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, we learn from the group of men congregating on Atticus's lawn Saturday evening that the mob threatening to lynch Tom Robinson is made up of members of "that Old Sarum bunch," meaning members of the Cunningham family who live in Old Sarum. The members of the Cunningham family are generally decent church-going farmers but can apparently cause much damage when, as Sheriff Heck Tate phrases it, "they get shinnied up," meaning drunk, though they don't usually drink on Sundays. On the Sunday night that the Cunninghams gather as a mob in front of Maycomb's county jail, they had been drinking because they considered Robinson's ensuing Monday trial to be a special occasion.

In Chapter 16, when the Cunninghams are gathered in front of the jail, Scout makes some observations about them. First she notices that when they first arrive and ask Mr. Finch if Robinson is inside the jail, they begin speaking in "near-whispers" as a "sickeningly comic" response to Atticus's reply, "He is ... and he's asleep. Don't wake him up." Though the fact that they start whispering is absurd and sickening considering they were there with the intention of killing Robinson, their response also shows us something about their character. Just as Atticus believes, the Cunninghams are generally decent folks, and their whispering shows they have an instinctive drive to be respectful of others; they especially have a deep respect for Atticus.

Despite their instinctive drive to be respectful, the Cunninghams are also uneducated farmers, and their lack of education makes them have a tendency to behave in rough, ill-mannered ways. Their roughness is portrayed in the fact that Scout notes they smelled of "stale whiskey and pigpen." Their roughness is also demonstrated in the fact that they conned Sheriff Tate into chasing after a nonexistent sniper in the woods just to get him out of town so they could storm the jail.

Yet, despite their roughness, the Cunninghams are, as Atticus believes, generally decent people. Their decency is demonstrated in the fact that they are hard workers. We know they are hard workers because of the way they are dressed: "in overalls and denim shirts buttoned up to the collars," plus long sleeves covering their arms for protection from hard labors and hats to protect themselves from the sun. Scout further describes them as "sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours." They are unused to late hours because, as devoted farmers, they are up with the sunrise to work all day on their farms and to bed by sunset in order to get enough rest to start their hard days of labor all over again.

Since they are generally decent men, it is not difficult for Scout to remind Walter Cunningham, their leader, of his humanity by conversing with him about his son and empathizing with him about his entailment.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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