What is the difference between the Ewells and the Cunninghams in To Kill a Mockingbird and why does Lee include them?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Maycomb has a very hierarchical society—rigidly so. Social mobility of any kind seems virtually impossible. Perhaps this is because most people agree with Aunt Alexandra that character traits, both good and bad, are handed down by family through each successive generation. So the Ewells, for example, are bad; they are "white trash"— always have been, always will be. The Cunninghams, however, though poor, are hard-working and virtuous. They won't accept a dime in charity from anyone; and if they can't afford to pay for something in cash, they'll pay what they owe in kind.

Bob Ewell, on the other hand, is an inveterate sponger, once fired from the WPA, (a federal work program for the unemployed), for laziness, the only such instance Scout can ever recall. And after his brief experience of work is over, he goes right back to picking up welfare checks without making the slightest effort to find a new job.

Harper Lee includes both families in the story to give us a more nuanced view of life in the South at that time. Given the intense bigotry and racial hatred so graphically displayed throughout the book, it would be tempting to lump all white people outside the Finch residence into one gigantic blob. Yes, Mr. Cunningham is part of a lynch mob that descends upon the jailhouse to lynch Tom Robinson. But, crucially, he still has enough of a spark of humanity in him to be disarmed by Scout's innocence and stout defense of her father. There's no way in a million years that Bob Ewell would've behaved that way.

Atticus neatly sums up the character of Mr. Cunningham. In doing so, he unwittingly draws a distinction with Bob Ewell:

 "Mr. Cunningham's basically a good man," he said, "he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us." 

Replace the word "good" with "bad" and you have a perfect description of Bob Ewell, and just why he and his family are so very different from the Cunninghams.

scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that Harper Lee includes the two impoverished families to illustrate that while one might be impoverished or part of a society's lower class, he does not have to be classless. Bob Ewell is obviously classless and raises his children to have the same lack of work ethic and ethos.  Mayella carefully plots to entice a married man and then frames him to save herself.  Similarly, her little brother Burris is truant and thinks nothing of insulting an authority figure. 

In contrast, the Cunninghams--while also being members of Maycomb's poor, struggling class--demonstrate class (for the most part).  Mr. Cunningham cannot pay Atticus with money for his legal assistance, but he is careful to pay in whatever manner he can (food goods, etc.). Walter, Mr. Cunningham's son, has obviously been raised with the same sense of diligence.  At the dinner table, he converses with Atticus about his hard work in the fields with his father, and Walter possesses such a sense of personal dignity that he is unable to explain to Miss Caroline why he does not have a lunch.

Thus, while both families suffer from the same physical effects of the Depression, they are completely different in not only their sense of decorum and decency but also in how fathers influence their children negatively or positively.

missy575 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Ewells represent the lowest white class of society. Lee frames this class as people who won't work, and who are stuck in a cycle of self-defeat and welfare status. The old English Ewell actually is evil.

The Cunninghams are the next highest class of society, willing to work, but poor and refusing of charity.

These classes exist to show that there are different types of people morally and according to work ethic. Later in the book Scout and Jem analyze this and come to the conclusion that there should just be one type of folks. Folks.

tee14 | Student

The Ewells, and the Cunninghams are both part of the lower class of Maycomb. However they portray themselves differently . The Ewells lack a sense of care, education, and jobs. But the Cunninghams try to make money the best way they can, and also encourage there children to attend school.

r0m4n | Student

Thank you for answer, it helps me too!

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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