What themes does Harper Lee develop through Calpurnia in To Kill A Mockingbird?

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Calpurnia is paid by Atticus to watch his children while he's at work. She's more of a mother to the kids than their Aunt Alexandra who comes to live with them. She washes their clothes, feeds them, and teaches them manners. Since she is also African American, she represents her culture living in Maycomb County during the 1930s. She's a good Christian woman who has a good work ethic and is a little superstitious as times. Many of the people in Maycomb, black or white, are superstitious about the Radley family for instance. Scout witnesses Calpurnia say, "There goes the meanest man ever God blew breath into" and then spit off to the side as if to stop bad luck from getting her because he crossed her path.

Another theme that comes through Cal is teaching good manners and tolerance to Scout. Aunt Alexandra seems to take over later on, but in the beginning, Calpurnia is the first to teach Scout about how to behave when company is over. Walter Cunningham Jr. comes over for lunch on Scout's first day of school and pours maple syrup over his non-breakfast-food meal. Scout vocalizes her dismay and Calpurnia says the following:

"Hush your mouth! Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house's yo' comp'ny, and don't you let me catch you remarkin' on their ways like you was so high and mighty! Yo' folks might be better'n the Cunninghams but it don't count for nothin' the way you're disgracin' 'em--if you can't act fit to eat at the table you can just set here and eat in the kitchen!" (24-25).

Later, Calpurnia is a good example of being a hostess as she takes the children to her church on Sunday. She also practices tolerance again as she stands up to those who don't like her bringing white kids to their church. The scene goes as follows:

"When Lula came up the pathway toward us Calpurnia said, 'Stop right there, nigger.'

Lula stopped, but she said, 'You ain't got no business bringin' white chillum  here--they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it, Miss Cal?'

Calpurnia said, 'It's the same God, ain't it?' . . . but when I looked at Calpurnia there was amusement in her eyes" (119).

Calpurnia stood her ground, but she didn't hold it against Lula. She and many other people welcomed the Finch children into their church. Fortunately, the children learn the good aspects of Calpurnia's culture as they are treated kindly. Along those lines, the children learn to care about everyone no matter what race or disability they may have.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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