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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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How important are the Ewells in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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The "disgrace of Maycomb for three generations," the Ewells serve as the most evil family in town while displaying a stark contrast to the other residents--both black and white. Bob and Mayella play a prominent part in the novel's second part, falsely accusing Tom Robinson of rape and setting up the dramatic trial that results in Tom's unjust conviction. The Ewells claim a separate spot on Jem's social order of Maycomb--the town's "four kinds of folks":

  • "... the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors..."
  • "... the Cunninghams out in the woods..."
  • "... the Ewells down at the dump..."
  • "...Negroes"  (Chapter 23)

Though Bob and his family are the epitome of Southern "white trash," they are white, and this puts them one step above African Americans in 1930s Alabama. Author Harper Lee symbolically allows the Ewells to live adjacent to the town dump where they fittingly sift through the trash. Bob is named after the South's most famous figure, Robert E. Lee, but Bob bears absolutely "no resemblance to his namesake." Bob drinks up his welfare check, leaving the family wanting for food; daughter Mayella attempts to seduce the married Tom, and then accuses him of rape when she is caught by her father; and even the young children, like the filthy Burris, will apparently carry on the family shame for at least another generation. Every story needs an antagonist, and Bob is a memorable one. His lies contribute to Tom's death; he seeks revenge on Atticus and Tom's widow; he eventually tries to kill Jem and Scout to square things with Atticus; and he gets what he deserves when Boo Radley heroically comes to the children's rescue. With his connection to both the trial and to Boo at the end, Bob plays a key part in tying together the story's two main plots in the final chapters.

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