To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers
by Harper Lee

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In Chapter 3 of Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, what does the reader learn about the Ewell family?

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In chapter 3 of To Kill a Mockingbird, the reader learns that the Ewell children are truant most of the year. They are also backward, illiterate, poor, dirty, and defiant of the attendance rule. They have no mother, and their father is "right contentious."

During Scout's traumatic first day of school, she attempts to assist the stranger who is her first-grade teacher. Miss Caroline Fisher stands in the middle of the room as she calls the roll. When she suddenly catches sight of something, Miss Caroline screams. Little Chuck Little believes that she has been startled by a mouse, but the teacher points to what Scout calls "a hulking individual" that is unknown to her. While Little Chuck runs to obtain a cup of water for Miss Caroline, the "hulking" boy reaches into his hair and squeezes a louse and kills it.

After she has calmed down, Miss Caroline asks the infected boy his name. He tells her that it is Burris Ewell, but he does not know how to spell his name. When Miss Caroline reads the remedy for lice, urging him to follow the instructions, the boy, whose face is dirty except for a small area, asks, "'What fer, missus?'" Miss Caroline tries to explain as politely as she can that Burris should go home and treat his scalp with kerosene. Then, the "filthiest human" Scout has ever seen stands up. Seeing him clearly, Miss Caroline suggests that he bathe before he returns to school the next day. Burris answers with a rude laugh. "You ain't sendin' me home, missus—I was on the verge of leavin'—I done done my time for this year—"

It is then that one of the older children explains, "He's one of the Ewells, ma'am. . . . Whole school's full of 'em. They come the first day every year and then leave." The same older student explains that the "truant lady" can only get the Ewells to attend on the beginning day by threatening to ask for the assistance of the sheriff; otherwise, "she give up tryin' to hold 'em." Despite hearing all this, Miss Caroline tries to enforce the rule of obligatory enrollment. She orders Burris to sit down, but Burris defiantly challenges her: "'You try and make me, missus.'" Then, the gallant Little Chuck Little stands and urges Miss Caroline to let Burris leave because he is "a hard-down mean one" and may "start somethin'" that could cause harm to the other children. Because Burris seems to fear Little Chuck, he does not challenge the smaller boy. When Miss Caroline tells Burris that she must report his behavior, Burris rudely insults her. He waits until she cries; then he leaves.

From this behavior of Burris's, the reader can surmise that there is little, if any, positive parental direction. One of the students informs Miss Caroline that the Ewell children are, for the most part, on their own. Furthermore, the father is "right contentious," suggesting, perhaps, that he is neglectful and may beat the children. (His many shortcomings are later revealed in other chapters.)

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In Chapter 3, Burris Ewell openly disrespects Miss Caroline when she asks him to go home and wash up. One of Scout's classmates informs Miss Caroline that the Ewells only come to school on the first day to appease their truancy officer. After Miss Caroline threatens to call the principal, Burris verbally insults her by calling her a "snot-nosed slut of a schoolteacher" (Lee 18). That night, Scout describes to her father her rough first day of school. Scout tells Atticus that she doesn't have to go to school because Burris Ewell only has to attend the first day of class. Atticus then explains the Ewell's family history to his daughter. Atticus tells Scout that the Ewells have been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations. Scout learns that the entire Ewell family lives like animals and Bob Ewell is a notorious alcoholic who spends all of his money on whiskey. The community also allows the Ewells certain privileges, like trapping and hunting out of season so that Bob's children don't starve.

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