What are some stereotypes about the Cunninghams in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Cunningham family is portrayed as a respectable group of country folk, who live outside of Maycomb and make their living on the farm. Despite being relatively morally-upright, honorable people, there are numerous negative stereotypes applied to their family. Aunt Alexandra claims that the Cunninghams are trash and will be...

Check Out
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The Cunningham family is portrayed as a respectable group of country folk, who live outside of Maycomb and make their living on the farm. Despite being relatively morally-upright, honorable people, there are numerous negative stereotypes applied to their family. Aunt Alexandra claims that the Cunninghams are trash and will be bad influences on Jem and Scout. Her class prejudice prevents her from accurately judging Walter Cunningham Jr. as a humble, responsible young boy.

There is also the stereotype that the Cunninghams are ignorant fools. However, Walter Jr. informs Atticus that the only reason he continues to fail school is due to the fact that his father desperately needs his help on the farm. Essentially, Walter Jr. does not have the opportunity to learn in school, which has nothing to do with his intelligence.

Another stereotype applied to the Cunninghams is that they are trashy and reckless. While it is true that the Cunninghams do indulge in alcohol and participate in questionable activities, Walter Cunningham demonstrates self-control and exercises perspective during the incident outside of Tom Robinson's cell. The Cunningham who serves as a juror at the Tom Robinson trial also demonstrates discernment and insight by arguing for Tom's acquittal. Tragically, the Cunninghams are labeled by the town as ignorant, trashy individuals because of their appearance and lower-class status. Despite the negative stereotypes, in the novel the Cunninghams are depicted as respectable, trustworthy individuals, who value integrity and honor.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

TRASH.  The Cunninghams are a step up on the social ladder of Maycomb according to Jem Finch (in descending order, there are "the ordinary kind like us," "the Cunninghams," "the Ewells," and "the Negroes"), but Alexandra believes differently. To her, there is little to separate the Ewells and Cunninghams. Scout cannot socialize with Walter Jr., Alexandra asserts, "Because--he--is--trash!" The rest of the Finches seem to agree that the Cunninghams are not in the same class as the Ewells, "the disgrace of Maycomb County for three generations."

REDNECK HILLBILLIES.  The word "redneck" is never used in the novel, nor are there any real hills in southern Alabama, but the Cunninghams seem to fit this description otherwise. The family is closely related--Atticus tells of the Cunninghams who are "double first cousins"--they don't attend church, they hang out and gamble at the Dew Drop Inn, and they "experimented with stumphole whiskey." They farm and pay their bills with bartered goods, and they get drunk before they carry out their planned lynch party.

CUNNING.  Author Harper Lee almost certainly chose the name of Cunningham deliberately, since the family does show a bit of cunning during the story. Walter Sr. manages to postpone his "entailment" problems by smartly hiring Atticus to defend him in court. The family outwits Heck Tate on the night of their planned lynching of Tom Robinson by sending the sheriff on a "snipe hunt." Even Atticus is surprised by the turn of events, telling Walter that "that changes things, doesn't it?"

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team