Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird: Character, Traits & Quotes

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  • 0:02 Calpurnia in a Nutshell
  • 0:29 Cal's Backstory
  • 1:01 Calpurnia & Scout
  • 2:23 Cal's Role in ''To…
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Few characters in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' are as memorable as Calpurnia. This lesson explores Calpurnia's character, traits, and her role in this novel.

Calpurnia in a Nutshell

In Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most memorable characters is the Finch family's black housekeeper, Calpurnia (also known as 'Cal'). Take a few moments to brainstorm a list of words and phrases you would use to describe Cal.

Did any of these things come to mind?

  • bossy
  • tough
  • strict
  • nurturing
  • kind
  • motherly

These are just a few words to describe the ever-present Calpurnia, but there is much more to this dynamic character.

Cal's Backstory

Calpurnia is a Maycomb County native. Born and raised near Finch's Landing, Calpurnia has known the Finch family for her entire life. A neighbor of the family, Miss Maudie Atkinson, had an aunt who taught Cal how to read from old law books. Calpurnia moved from the Landing to the town of Maycomb where Atticus Finch got married. After the death of Atticus' wife, Calpurnia became a much more important fixture of the Finch household. Her responsibilities include cooking, cleaning, and keeping the Finch children, Scout and Jem, in line.

Calpurnia and Scout

The reader gets to know Calpurnia through the eyes of Scout, the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird. According to Scout, Calpurnia, ...was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard.

The fact that Scout knows that Cal's hand was twice as hard as a bed slat gives readers insight into Scout and Cal's love-hate relationship: She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why I couldn't behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older, and calling me home when I wasn't ready to come. Our battles were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could remember.

Calpurnia is quick to react with a stern word or a smack on the behind when Scout acts out or misbehaves. As you can imagine, this does not sit well with Scout! Nevertheless, as the reader gets further into the novel, the more apparent it is that Calpurnia does far more than order and boss Scout around. When Scout is sad or upset, Calpurnia is known for cheering her up with a little bit of cracklin' bread or a small treat to brighten her spirits. Calpurnia proves to be a truly nurturing person in the Finch children's life and is the closest thing to a mother that they have.

Calpurnia's Role in To Kill a Mockingbird

Calpurnia's significance in To Kill a Mockingbird is much greater than just cooking and cleaning for the Finch family. Calpurnia is largely responsible for teaching Scout and Jem about what it means to be a good person in the context of the community around them.

One of the earliest examples of this is when a schoolmate, Walter Cunningham, joins Scout and Jem for lunch. Scout had beaten up Walter on the playground at school, so Jem extended him an invitation to come eat. Scout is appalled by Walter's table manners and makes a comment to him. When Scout defends her comments under the pretense that Walter Cunningham is not company, Calpurnia responds:

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!

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