What's Walter Cunningham like? What does his behavior during lunch suggest about his home life?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Walter Cunningham probably would closely resemble some of the male members of Honey Boo Boo's family or, going back to the old Andy Griffin Show, the Appalachian clan of the Darlings, who lived back in the mountains near Mayberry. At any rate, he is probably of Scot-Irish descent and his family has been in Alabama for generations. As Scout comments,

...the same families married the same families until the members of the community looked faintly alike.

In Chapter 3, after she attacks him for causing her troubles with Miss Caroline, Scout describes Walter as having blue eyes that are "red-rimmed and watery" (probably from malnutrition).

Walter looked as if he had been raised on fish food...There was no color in his face except at the tip of his nose, which was moistly pink. He fingered the straps of his overalls, nervously picking at the metal hooks.

When he goes home to lunch with Jem and Scout, Walter does not display the proper table manners known to the Finches. When Scout states that by the time the children are all on the front steps of the Finch house, "Walter had forgotten that he was a Cunningham" because his father always came to the back door when he had business with Atticus. At the table Walter pours syrup over all his food, and Scout is appalled. But, poor Walter probably does this at home since the food is probably of poor quality, bland, and scarce.  

While Walter Cunningham is a poor white, his family, nonetheless, maintains a certain pride and set of ethics. For instance, Walter's father insists upon paying debts; if he has no money, then, he pays in potatoes or another crop. Mr. Cunningham will not sign up for the WPA program of the Roosevelt era that put people to work during the Depression because he feels the program is essentially a socialistic hand-out. When young Walter will not take the quarter that Miss Caroline offers because he knows that he cannot repay it, the teacher does not understand his refusal. But, Walter has pride like his father, and would rather go hungry than take a hand-out.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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