There are scattered references to the Ewell family throughout the novel. The first mention is of young Burris, who calls Miss Caroline a "snot-nosed slut of a schoolteacher" on the first day of school. Burris proves that the nut does not fall far from the tree. The Ewells are about the only people that Atticus has anything bad to say about, calling them
... the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations. None of them had done an honest day's work in his recollection. (Chapter 3)
Atticus and his brother, Jack, discuss the Ewells at Christmas, and Jack describes his memory of them. Atticus tells him that
"You're a generation off. The present ones are the same, though." (Chapter 9)
The best description of the Ewells comes at the begining of the trial in Chapter 17. They live in filthy conditions adjacent to the town dump. Bob doesn't work, his wife is dead, and Mayella--the eldest child--is forced to take care of the other children, none of whom attend school regularly. Bob drinks up the family's welfare check, leaving the others to scramble for whatever they can find at the dump.
The varmints had a lean time of it, for the Ewells gave the dump a thorough gleaning every day. (Chapter 17)
To Scout, Bob "reminded me of a deaf-mute," a
... little bantam cock of a man (who) rose and strutted to the stand, the back of his neck reddening at the sound of his name. (Chapter 17)
Scout thinks Bob in no way bears a "resemblance to his namesake," Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Sheriff Heck Tate tells Atticus that Boo Radley has "done you and this town a great service" by killing Bob. Author Harper Lee uses her various characters to paint a portrait of the scurrilous villain of the story--a man who everyone agrees has no positive character traits whatsoever.