In Chapter 16 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, what is ironic about Scout’s observation of the “little man on the witness stand”?

2 Answers

tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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It is in Chapter 16 in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird that when Robert Ewell takes the witness stand, Scout observes to herself, "All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white."

Prior to this line, we learn that the Ewells live near the county's dump, about 500 yards away from a "small Negro settlement." As Scout flashes back in her narrative, she reminisces about seeing small cabins lit up by "glowing amber" fires and the smells of cooking.

In saying the above line, Scout is observing that Bob Ewell is always so dirty that his skin looks as dark as a Negroes and means to be making a racial statement. Many folks in her county believe that having white skin makes people better than Negroes. Hence, Scout comments that having white skin is the only thing that makes Bob Ewell better than his Negro neighbors. However, through his and Mayella Ewell's testimonies, we soon come to understand that Bob is guilty of impregnating his daughter multiple times, of physical abuse, and of blaming his crimes on Tom Robinson. Hence, the true irony of Scout's statement is that Bob Ewell isn't better at all than his neighbors; nothing makes him better, not even his skin color.

gmuss25's profile pic

gmuss25 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Distinguished Educator

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As was mentioned in the previous post, Scout observes that the only thing that made Bob Ewell better than his nearest neighbors was his white skin. Bob Ewell is an abusive alcoholic who lives like an animal. The Ewells reside behind the town dump in a dilapidated cabin that is surrounded by a yard full of trash. They are regarded as the most despicable family in Maycomb and are abhorred by the citizens. However, Bob Ewell is perceived as a more reliable witness than Tom Robinson in the eyes of the prejudiced jury because he is white. In Maycomb's society, a white person is automatically viewed and treated better than a black person simply because of their skin color. Ironically, Bob's skin color does not reveal anything about his despicable personality and is not an accurate gauge of his character. It is ironic that the only thing that makes Bob Ewell "better" than his neighbors is actually irrelevant in regard to his character.