Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee
Start Free Trial

In To Kill a Mockingbird, why doesn't Alexandra want Scout playing with Walter Cunningham?

Expert Answers

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

In Chapter 23, Atticus explains to the children that one of the Cunninghams argued for Tom Robinson's acquittal. This news shocks the children and Scout suddenly remembers the time that she rushed to Walter's defense in school. When Scout mentions that she is going to invite Walter over to play and spend the night, Aunt Alexandra says, "We'll see about that" (Lee 137). Scout is perplexed, and Aunt Alexandra proceeds to explain why Walter Cunningham Jr. cannot come over. Alexandra believes that the Finches are a more esteemed family than the Cunninghams and she is prejudiced towards them because they are lower-class farmers. Alexandra ends up telling Scout that Walter Cunningham Jr. is "trash" which infuriates her. Aunt Alexandra believes that upper-class families should not mingle with lower-class families and fears that Scout will pick up on Walter's bad habits. She views the Cunningham family as beneath them and forbids Scout from playing with Walter despite the fact that he is a well-behaved child. 

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

Alexandra is a strong believer in Southern tradition; one of the traditions of the Old South she continues to uphold with great zeal is that of social class distinction. Put simply, Alexandra is a snob. She is enormously proud of her family heritage as a member of the Finch family, one of the oldest and most respected in Maycomb County. As a result, she looks down upon any family that is not as old and accomplished (or as financially comfortable) as her own. It is from this frame of reference that Alexandra explains to Scout why she cannot be friends with Walter Cunningham, a classmate who comes from a poor but proud family:

The thing is, you can scrub Walter Cunningham till he shines, you can put him in shoes and a new suit, but he'll never be like Jem. Besides, there's a drinking streak in that family a mile wide. Finch women aren't interested in that sort of people.

When Scout persists, Alexandra speaks as plainly as she can, showing her ignorance and arrogance about Walter, a respectful little boy who cannot help the circumstances of his birth:

Because--he--is--trash, that's why you can't play with him. I'll not have you around him, picking up his habits and learning Lord-knows-what.

Her Aunt's contempt and cruelty reduce Scout to furious tears. Jem leads her sobbing from the room.

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

Aunt Alexandra's greatest concern in life is maintaining her social status in Maycomb County--and that extends to her niece and nephew. She is a privileged woman born into a multi-generational, land-owning family and she is bound and determined to keep the Finch name connected to the old ways. Those old ways include being at the top of Maycomb's caste system; and, socializing with anyone outside of one's social category is completely out of the question. For example, Walter Cunningham's family owns land, but because of the Great Depression, they've fallen on hard times and have mortgaged their farm to keep control of it. According to Aunt Alexandra, the Cunninghams are impoverished and therefore unfit to visit the Finches socially. She even goes so far as to tell Scout directly why Walter Cunningham, Jr. can't come over to play:

"I'll tell you why. . . Because--he--is--trash, that's why you can't play with him. I'll not have you around him, picking up his habits and learning Lord-knows-what. You're enough of a problem to your father as it is" (225).

Another reason that Aunt Alexamdra probably considers the Cunninghams trash is because they also have a reputation to get drunk with their cousins and cause problems around the county. For example, Cunninghams got Arthur Radley in trouble with the law because of drinking years ago; and most recently, the whole tribe showed up to lynch Tom Robinson before the day of the trial. They are not necessarily well-mannered, law-abiding citizens when they get drunk together. Thus, she does not want Scout playing with little Walter Cunningham and learning about what that family does or "picking up his habits" as stated above.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on