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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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In chapter 17 of To Kill a Mockingbird, how does the author characterize the Ewells, especially Bob Ewell?

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Chapter 17 of To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee, is set in the courtroom at the trial of Tom Robinson, who is charged with Mayella Ewell's rape.

The main characterization here is provided through direct or indirect characterization.

Lilia Melanie, of Brooklyn College, provides definitions of two of the methods an author can use to provide the reader with information about his or her characters.

In direct presentation, a character is described by the author, the narrator or the other characters.

In indirect presentation, a character's traits are revealed by action and speech.

Harper Lee uses direct characterization in having some characters describe others (such as Boo Radley), and indirect characterization based on how characters act and what they say. Indirect characterization plays an enormous role in coming up with our impressions of Bob and Mayella Ewell, which will remain with the reader until the end of the story.

Bob Ewell, we learn, is a drunken good-for-nothing who is mean-spirited and lazy. In the courtroom, we hear from Ewell's own mouth that he is a racist, not only in using the n-word, but in acting as if Tom is of no consequence when he falsely accuses him. His ego, we will find, cannot abide the idea that he not be seen as a force to be reckoned with—mostly because he is white.

All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.


It was becoming evident that he thought Atticus an easy match. He seemed to grow ruddy again; his chest swelled, and once more he was a red little rooster.

Ewell has no respect for the court, taking the proceedings anything but seriously, and showing his sense of superiority towards Tom Robinson and his race, even though socially, Ewell is really the bottom of the "food chain," while Tom Robinson is a hard-working, gentle, caring man (as seen in how sympathetic he is towards Mayella, which ultimately gets him in trouble).

Ewell is crude and vulgar, seen as he answers the prosecuting attorney's questions.

Mayella was screamin' fit to beat Jesus—

He is ultimately warned by the judge to watch his mouth. Ewell's behavior shows him to enjoy disrupting the court proceedings in order to make his point, but I think he also takes pleasure in the power he exerts over the proceedings and the attention he receives.

Mr. Ewell was sitting smugly in the witness chair, surveying his handiwork.

It is implied that Mayella was beaten by someone left-handed; learning through Atticus' questions and Ewell's demonstration of his writing (with his left hand), the reader realizes that Bob Ewell has probably not only struck his daughter, but lied about doing it.

Mayella does not take the stand in this chapter, but the fact that she is supporting her father's accusations against Tom Robinson tells us a great deal about her. Believing that Bob Ewell was probably the left-handed person who beat her, we can assume that she has been physically abused in the past and is probably scared to death of her dad. Her willingness to support Mr. Ewell's accusations in the charging of Tom Robinson for her rape, shows Mayella also to be a liar (although his violent behavior toward her makes her actions understandable, though not admirable).

Through direct and indirect characterization, we find Mayella to be a frightened young girl who has lied about Tom Robinson's actions, and Bob Ewell to be an arrogant, drunken, violent, disrespectful man who has lied about what he says he saw Tom Robinson doing to Mayella.

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In Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, she does an excellent job of incorporating multiple literary devices in order to provide detailed characterizations.  Lee's descriptions of Bob Ewell and his family, including Mayella, include examples of metaphor, imagery, exaggeration, dialect, and other literary devices.  Because Lee provides such thorough descriptions of the Ewells, the reader is able to imagine a very clear mental picture of the characters and react more strongly to the story than if he or she felt no connection to those characters.  By making the Ewells human (albeit unattractively so), the reader is compelled to form a personal opinion of those characters and what they represent.

Lee describes Bob Ewell as "a little bantam cock of a man," which is a metaphor used to assist the reader in imagining his mannerisms and attitude.  When the author says that Bob "had no chin," she is clearly exaggerating (maybe not greatly, but at least somewhat).  By giving the Ewells Southern dialect that would have been used uneducated and poor members of Maycomb society, as well as adding examples of crude subject content, Lee causes the reader to form a negative mental picture and opinion of the family, particularly Bob, who attempts to seek attention in seemingly all but the appropriate ways.

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In addition to the figurative language in Chapter 17 of To Kill a Mockingbird that is used to describe Bob Ewell as "a little bantam cock [a fiesty little chicken that struts proudly around the pen] of a man," Harper Lee has some fun with the irony of his name:  Robert E. Lee Ewell, who was a brillant leader of the Southern troops in the Civil War.  Ewell's character falls very short of his namesake, as Scout remarks, and his attempts to destroy his "enemy," the gentle Tom Robinson are nothing short of parody.

Of course, Harper Lee also employs traditional methods of indirect and direct characterization.  Here are some examples:

Direct Characterization:

Through the voice of her narrator, Ms. Lee gives her opinion of the character of Bob Ewell:

All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.

Mr. Ewell reminded me of a deaf-mute.  I was sure he had never heard the words Judge Taylor directed at him....

Indirect Characterization:

1.  A physical description - "a little bantam cock of a man rose and strutted to the stand, [whose] face was as red as his neck."

The home and the children are also described: 

Nobody was quite sure how many children were on the place...

The varmints had a lean time of it, for the Ewells gave the dump a thorough gleaning every day, that the fruits of their industry (those that were not eaten) made the plot of ground around the cabin look like the playhouse of an insane child [simile].

2.  The character's thoughts, feelings, and speech:  "...I heard Mayella screamin' like a stuck hog inside the house--"

Mr. Ewell backed up into the witness chair, settled himself, and regarded Atticus with haughty suspicion, an expression common to Maycomb County witnesses when confronted by opposing counsel.

3.  The comments and reactions of other characters:

"Mr. Ewell, you will keep your testimony within the confines of Christian English usage, if that is possible." Judge Taylor directs.
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First, the author uses figurative language to describe Bob Ewell:

a little bantam cock of a man rose and strutted to the stand, the back of his neck reddening at the sound of his name. When he turned around to take the oath, we saw that his face was as red as his neck. We also saw no resemblance to his namesake. A shock of wispy newwashed hair stood up from his forehead; his nose was thin, pointed, and shiny; he had no chin to speak of—it seemed to be part of his crepey neck.

The first part of this passage illustrates the use of an extended metaphor as Bob is repeatedly referred to as if he was indeed a chicken. All the bolded words contribute to the metaphor. The italicized language demonstrates imagery or the sensory detail of sight.

No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression. No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.

Here the author uses paralellism in the lines that are bolded. Parallelism is a rhetorical device that uses similar grammatical structures to create a rhythym.

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