What is the significance of Bob Ewell's legal name in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is an interesting but of course deliberate choice that author Harper Lee made in To Kill a Mockingbird when she named the less-than-stellar man we know as Bob Ewell after a famous Civil War general. THE Robert E. Lee is virtually nothing like Robert E. Lee Ewell.

Obviously Robert E. Lee was a well trained, educated man who had the ability to lead; people believed in him and were willing to follow him. Lee was the most renowned general of the Confederate States of America, a title which made him the equivalent of the President of a symbolic half of the country. He was willing to fight to save the rights of states to make decisions for themselves, and he was a staunch supporter of slavery. Whether or not we agree with his position or views, we can probably agree that Lee was a man of integrity.

In contrast, Bob Ewell is not an educated man, and he has not inspired his children to be better educated than him. He leads no one; in fact, he is rather an embarrassment to the entire town of Maycomb. Everyone makes exceptions for Ewell and his children because they know his children would not eat otherwise. He is allowed to hunt when and where others are not because he drinks away his government check. Ewell is a cruel, abusive man who is blinded by his racism.

Perhaps the only thing the two men have in common is their support of slavery, so it is clear that the author named this inferior antagonist after a distinctly more worthy man for some satiric or ironic reason. She makes the contrast between these two men quite distinct.

Note the following statement Ewell makes when he lies about what Tom Robinson did:

"I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin' on my Mayella!" 

Ewell is crude, he is racist, he is a liar, and he insists on maintaining control of his daughter Mayella. These are qualities no one admires, and even the townspeople who agree with his position on slavery and black people do not want to claim any of his other positions, acts, or views.

And that is the point, it seems to me. Bob Ewell is not a sympathetic character, even though he bears a name which should inspire even the most racist residents of Maycomb. He is despised by the blacks and the whites, the rich and the poor. Those who consider the Confederate general to be a hero are appalled that that such a man as Bob Ewell shares Lee's name; even those who believe Lee was their enemy are equally appalled that Ewell carries his name because Ewell is a significantly less admirable man than Lee, even though they disagree with him. 

So, Harper Lee does her best to kind of "dress him up," but she takes her best shot and Bob Ewell is still an inferior person in every way. In fact, after he is killed, Sheriff Heck Tate makes it clear that the best thing Bob Ewell has ever done is to die. Tate defends Boo Radley's killing of Ewell, telling Atticus that Boo has

done you and this town a great service

by taking Ewell's life. 

Giving a bad man a lofty name clearly does not make him a good man--or even a better man. Like Scout, we have learned to judge a man by his character, his words, and his actions more than what he looks like, where he lives, or what his name is.

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