How would you describe the Ewell family in To Kill a Mockingbird?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the Ewell family is poor, dysfunctional, and "the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations." The children are dirty and rarely attend school, Mayella is lonely but willing to lie about Tom, and Bob is an alcoholic who does not work, abuses his family, and attacks Atticus's children in revenge.

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The Ewell family consists of the most despicable citizens in Maycomb, who live behind the town's garbage dump in an old "Negro" cabin. Bob Ewell is the father of numerous children and head of the household. He is a notorious alcoholic and malevolent person who cannot hold a steady job and may be sexually abusing his daughter, Mayella. Mayella is Bob's oldest daughter and is in charge of raising her disobedient siblings. She is depicted as a lonely, ignorant girl who accuses Tom Robinson of raping her after her father witnesses her kissing Tom. Burris Ewell is one of Mayella's younger siblings and is in Scout's first-grade class. Scout mentions that none of the Ewell children attend school regularly and that they are continually truant. Burris is also portrayed as a rude, disrespectful child who resembles his father's vile character. At different points in the novel, Bob falsely accuses Tom of raping his daughter, spits in Atticus's face, threatens Helen Robinson, and attempts to murder Scout and Jem. Overall, the Ewell family is a dysfunctional group of nefarious, ignorant individuals who show no remorse for harming others.

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Atticus rarely has a bad word to say about anyone, but the Ewells are an exception. He describes them best when he tells Scout that

... the Ewells had been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations. (Chapter 3)

One can only imagine what Bob's father and grandfather must have been like since the present Ewell patriarch is positively the most evil character in the novel. Bob does not have a job--"None of them had done an honest day's work in his recollection," says Atticus--and drinks up his welfare check instead of providing for his children. He spends most of his time drinking and hunting out of season. Described as a "little bantam cock of a man" who bore "no resemblance to his namesake (Confederate hero General Robert E. Lee)," he absolutely gloats when giving the untruthful testimony about Tom Robinson raping his daughter. Tom's and Mayella's testimony actually suggests that Bob had beaten Mayella--and possibly even had other improper relations with her. Later, unsatisfied that Tom has been found guilty and faces the death penalty, Bob stalks the people he most despises--Tom's widow, Helen; Judge Taylor; and, apparently, Atticus's own children. In the end, he attempts to make good his threat to get even with Atticus "if it took the rest of his life." Sheriff Tate practically rejoices when he finds Bob's body: Bob

"... wasn't crazy, mean as hell. Low-down skunk... (the) kind of men you have to shoot before you say hidy to 'em. Ewell 'as one of 'em." (Chapter 29)

Appropriately, the family lives in an old cabin adjacent to the town dump: it is author Harper Lee's way of inferring that they are "white trash" without ever using the term. Bob's wife is dead, and he pays little attention to his children, instead allowing his oldest daughter, Mayella, to keep watch over them. The children are filthy, lice-ridden and illiterate.

They were people, but they lived like animals. (Chapter 3)

Burris--"the filthiest human I had ever seen"-- crudely curses and threatens his first grade teacher, Miss Caroline, calling her a "snot-nosed slut." Mayella, who does arouse some sympathy from Scout (and the reader) because she tries more than the other family members to provide a bit of beauty in the household with her lovingly-tended geraniums, nevertheless sinks to her father's level when she backs his story that Tom had raped her. Mayella comes across as both pitiful and untrustworthy, and

I guess if she hadn't been so poor and ignorant, Judge Taylor would have put her under the jail for the contempt she had shown everybody in the courtroom. (Chapter 18)

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The Ewells represent one of the lowest classes of people in Maycomb. They are what was considered "poor white trash". The only lower class in the town were Blacks. This is why Tom Ewell can be so condescending on Tom and why the jury feels it must convict Tom of a crime they probably know he didn't commit. To do otherwise would upset the balance of the social fabric of Southern society, of which Maycomb is part. To allow a Black man to go free after being accused of attacking a White woman, even one as poor and low class as Mayella, would have been unthinkable. That is why Atticus knows he will lose the trial, but has hopes for the case on appeal. He knows Tom will be convicted solely because he is Black and Mayella is White. However, somewhere in the appeals process, he and Tom might prevail. Unfortunately, Tom is killed before the appeals process can even begin. And that is why Bob Ewell attacks Atticus' children. He felt his reputation and standing in the community, even though it was low, had been made lower and he had been embarrassed because he knew people believed a Black man instead of him.

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The Ewell family is disfunctional.  The father, Bob Ewell, is an alocoholic; the daughter, Mayella Ewell, is a lonley girl who has to suffer the abuse of her father; and, the other Ewell children only go to school each year on the first day.

 

They are a poor family and they are looked down upon by the community.

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