Why does Jem invite Walter to dinner in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee? What social issue does Lee introduce with the character of Walter Cunningham?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not only a wonderful story about the adventures of two imaginative children, but it also focuses on several important lessons for the reader.  In the world of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s, life did not always provide equality and justice.  Poverty, ignorance, racism, crime, social arrogance, immorality---all of these social ills were found in this small southern town.

For the Finch children, their father tries to explain and insulate the children from societal issues. On the other hand, Atticus Finch stands up against these social issues; consequently, his children face them with him.

If Scout is anything, she is blunt and honest. In her innocence, Scout feels that she should inform the new teacher Miss Caroline, who is not from Maycomb, about the problems within her class.  One incident does not help Scout start out well with the teacher.

Walter Cunningham does not a lunch nor money for it, so he tells the teacher that he has forgotten his lunch.

Walter Cunningham was lying his head off. He didn’t forget his lunch, he didn’t have any.  He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day. He had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life.

Thinking that she was doing a favor for the boy, Miss Caroline offers to give him lunch money.  Scout intercedes by telling the teacher that she should not offer him money because he would not take it. For interfering, the teacher hits Scout’s hand and stands her in the corner.

What social problem is introduced?

In this situation, Scout was trying to do a service for both parties.  The teacher was new to Maycomb and did not know the societal caste system.  Scout knows that the Cunningham family is extremely impoverished. 

Walter has been taught not to take things that he cannot pay back. His family’s dignity and self-sufficiency forestall him taking charity. The times are hard for farmers.  Mr. Cunningham owes Atticus money and pays him with firewood or anyway he can.  Unlike the Ewell family, the Cunningham family has values and a work ethic.

Why does Jem invite Walter to eat lunch at his house?

When Scout goes to the playground, she finds Walter and rubs his nose in the dirt. Jem stops Scout and invites Walter to eat lunch at their house. Jem shows his maturity here because he has learned the lesson that Atticus has tried to teach Scout: Look at the situation from the other person’s point of view. Walter cannot help his circumstances. 

Atticus and Mr. Cunningham have a relationship; therefore, Walter should be treated with respect.  Jem knows that the Cunninghams face poverty every day.  In comparison, the Finch children have plenty to eat and the security of growing up as children without having to worry about the hardships of the great depression.

Scout’s rudeness to Walter concerning his eating habits further displays her immaturity and insensitivity, typical of children her age. Infuriated by Scout’s behavior, Calpurnia, the housekeeper, tells her that Walter is company, not everyone eats the same way, and Scout should never act so “high and mighty!” Calpurnia accentuates the lesson by sending Scout away from the table.


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To Kill a Mockingbird

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