In Chapter 17, what do readers indirectly learn about the home life of the Ewell family?

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The Ewells are the poorest of the poor in Maycomb’s white community and are feared and looked down upon by other citizens of Maycomb.  They live on the outskirts of the black community by the town dump that they scour for basic necessities. There are eight children although Scout isn’t quite sure when she says,

Nobody was quite sure how many children were on the place. Some people said six, others said nine; there were always several dirty-faced ones at the windows when anyone passed by.

Mayella Ewell is the oldest child of Bob Ewell, and there isn’t a mother in the picture. Because so many of the children are young (like Burris Ewell, Scout’s classmate), it is suggested that some of the children are products of incest between Bob and Mayella. As readers, we know that Bob beats Mayella, and circumstances, unfortunately, may indicate that he also rapes her.   The cabin where they live is in bad shape and held together by the odds and ends they find in the dump. Scout describes the cabin as,

The cabin's plank walls were supplemented with sheets of corrugated iron, its general shape suggested it's original design: square, with four tiny rooms opening onto a shotgun hall, the cabin rested uneasily upon four irregular lumps of limestone. Its windows were merely open spaces in the walls, which in the summer were covered with greasy strips of cheese cloth to keep out the varmints that feasted on Maycomb's refuse.

The Ewell family’s existence is one of poverty and filth. Bob Ewell doesn’t work (until he gets a job with the WPA where he is promptly fired) and the children must take care of themselves in order to survive. They lack education as shown by Burris only showing up for the first day of school because it’s the law. The only redeeming sign of the Ewells are the slop jars filled with geraniums Mayella tends to along the fence of the cabin.  The Ewells are a sad testament to how ignorance, poverty, and racism can destroy people.   


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We learn that the Ewells live in absolute squalor which they have become habituated to over generations. However, after an extended description of the unseemly cabin and yard where they live (which is contrasted with the similarly poor, but infinitely more clean and decent living-quarters of the blacks), we get a hint of something different:

One corner of the yard, though, bewildered Maycomb. Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson, had Miss Maudie deigned to permit a geranium on her premises. People said they were Mayella Ewell’s.

This gives a clear hint that Mayella, at least, does strive to impart some brightness to her surroundings, and the image of the beautiful, 'brilliant' geraniums is a startling detail in the otherwise dreary yard. in this respect she is even compared to the dignified,good-hearted Miss Maudie. She is probably the only Ewell who attempts anything in this line.

Mayella's geraniums are symbolic of her wish for better things in her world, and shows that there is at least one Ewell who, in the daily grind of their sordid home life, has a certain appreciation of beauty. However, any such attempts to beautify her surroundings seem doomed to fail. The conditions of her life in general conspire to drag her down, when she is forced to falsely accuse Tom Robinson of rape at the behest of her vicious, lying father.

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We learn that Mayella Ewell is probably an abused young girl who is forced to take care of the rest of her siblings while their father is away each day. The family is poor and uneducated. The most important thing we learn, though, is that Mr. Ewell is left handed. Attitcus has already established that whoever hit Mayella was also left handed. This suggests to Scout and others that Bob Ewell may have been responsible for the bruises on Mayella's face. Tom Robinson is physically incapable of making them because his left hand is useless.

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