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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Which of the characters in chapter 3 have the most power and the highest status in Maycomb? Which have the least power and status? What accounts for those differences?  

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In chapter 3, Jem invites Walter Cunningham Jr. over for dinner and Scout disrespects him by commenting on his eating habits. Walter Cunningham hails from a poor farming family, but his father is respected throughout the community. Although the Cunninghams are poor, they are hard workers, and Walter's father pays Atticus through unconventional means. Other educated professionals in town do business with Walter Cunningham and have a trusting relationship with his family.

Later in the chapter, Scout returns to school, and the reader is introduced to Burris Ewell, who hails from the most despicable family in Maycomb. The Ewells are a family of ignorant, disrespectful individuals who live off welfare and reside behind the dump. While the Ewells struggle financially like the Cunninghams, they have a terrible reputation throughout the community, and the citizens of Maycomb view them with contempt.

In regards to social status in the small town, Atticus and his neighbors are considered at the top of Maycomb's social caste system because they are educated professionals who do not struggle financially. Country folks like the Cunninghams are in the second tier of Maycomb's social caste system, while the Ewells are below them. Despite the similarities in financial status between the Cunninghams and Ewells, the Cunninghams are hard workers and have a positive reputation throughout the community. Individuals like Atticus and other citizens living in town associate with the Cunninghams and detest the Ewells. Therefore, the Ewells have the least amount of power out of the white citizens in the small town of Maycomb, while Atticus and his neighbors are considered prominent figures in the community.

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Chapter three in Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird compares the financial, educational, and social status of each of the following Maycomb families: the Finches, Cunninghams, and Ewells. The Finches can not only trace their family's ancestry to a long-standing plantation, but also to money, land ownership, education, and a respectable social status. These items and family characteristics give the Finch family financial stability, health, well-being, and safety within the law. They also enjoy a certain amount of power within the community because they can use their education and stable lifestyle to serve others as well as themselves.

The Cunninghams are probably one step down from the Finches and in the middle of the community hierarchy. They have some education, own land, and can also trace their family's ancestry back to the beginnings of Maycomb's history. They just don't have a lot of money because farming isn't very lucrative, and there's a depression on. They also have a good work ethic and pay their debts with anything valuable they may have so they are beholden to none.

The Ewells, on the other hand, are at the bottom of the county's hierarchy because the father spends their welfare checks on alcohol, they live on a small plot of land near the dump, and they don't participate in education, have jobs, or respect others in the community. The children get away with only having to go to one day of school each year, they never bathe, and they are disrespectful to everyone.

Scout asks her father about the families' different lifestyles. For example, she doesn't understand why Walter Cunningham would pour syrup all over vegetables and why Burris Ewell is allowed to go to only one day of school each year. Atticus reflects on the Ewell situation and why they aren't forced to go to school or follow the local hunting laws as follows:

"It's against the law, all right. . . and it's certainly bad, but when a man spends his relief checks on green whiskey his children have a way of crying from hunger pains. I don't know of any landowner around here who begrudges those children any game their father can hit" (31).

The above passage mentions why the community allows Bob Ewell to hunt out of season and references landowners as the governing body of the community. These are the men who have power in the community for the most part. Education got Atticus a good job as an attorney, but he also owns land. The Cunninghams have basic education, but they carry more clout because they own land. Bob Ewell may own a small plot of land by the dump, but he also doesn't live respectably. Power and status in the community depend on money, education, respect for the law, but mainly on whether or not a family owns land.

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