We are so enamored with the noble Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s novel and his commitment to his principles and doing what is right — win or lose — that we often overlook who is, in my estimation, one of the most unlikable (and believable) villains in American literature. Bob Ewell is thoroughly detestable because of his ignorance, his racist attitudes, and the reprehensible abuse and neglect of his own children. Ewell is despicable; it is difficult to find a shred of compassion for such a malicious character. It is implied in the novel that Bob Ewell abuses his daughter Mayella, and while we are left to intimate the history of why, Scout describes that the town of Maycomb gives the Ewells “the back of its hand.” We learn more about the effects of the Ewell family’s isolation as we listen to the depth of Mayella’s loneliness and social ignorance during her testimony. The novel ends with a drunken Bob Ewell attacking the Finch children in the dark with a switchblade.
One of the chapters that I cut from The Mockingbird Parables was “The Parable of the Ewells.” A theme in this chapter was the impact on people (or groups of people) of being completely separated from community, even if that isolation is self-imposed. It has struck me as profound to look at the landscape of contemptible characters that have sullied our headlines with their crimes in past years. They all have one thing in common: they were completely isolated from any semblance of community. We know too well that kind of isolation is dangerous.
Everyone who reads the novel feels sympathy for Mayella Ewell. The real problem, of course, is who could really reach out to Bob Ewell? Who would even want to? The history of Ewell’s alcoholism, ignorance, and anger had placed a sufficient and justifiable wall between his family and the community of Maycomb, so much so that his daughter Mayella doesn’t even understand the meaning of the word “friend” on the witness stand. Yet, it is the Bob Ewells of our world, the ones that drive people away, the ones who are most unlikable, that may need someone to consistently reach into their self-imposed seclusion. Sometimes, even the safety of our own communities depends on it. How much do we have a responsibility to make a connection with these disreputable people?
I wonder if some of the meaning of the Gospels has been lost over time. The early church might have better understood how despicable the types of characters were that Jesus would regularly hang around. I wonder if the “sinners and tax-collectors” were Bob Ewell-like characters that we would be terrified or ashamed to even stand near; folks whose attitudes and actions were so repulsive, even the lowest in society would not be associate with them. I question if the people Jesus reached out to weren’t pushing everyone away, hanging on by a thread, with no strong connection or regard for community. I don’t mind working to reach through the isolation of those for whom I feel sympathy – even when it is difficult… but I wonder if Jesus has a higher call. I want nothing to do with the “Bob Ewells” of the world — and yet Jesus had dinner with them. Now, that is a radical challenge.