To Kill a Mockingbird


Harper Lee

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To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Mayella takes the stand. Scout can tell that Mayella tries but fails to keep clean, and she thinks of the geraniums in the Ewell yard. Mr. Gilmer asks Mayella to share what happened. Mayella promptly bursts into tears and says that she’s afraid of Atticus. Judge Taylor assures her that Atticus won’t scare her. Mayella says that Mr. Ewell had asked her to chop up a “chiffarobe” (dresser) for firewood, but she asked Tom to do it for a nickel instead. She went inside to get the money and he choked her and raped her. She agrees that she screamed and fought and says that she doesn’t remember much until Mr. Tate arrived.
Again, Mayella’s geraniums help Scout to see that Mayella is a person, just like everyone else in the room—being a Ewell doesn’t change that. Because of Mayella’s lack of education and the fact that she doesn’t fit into polite Maycomb society, Atticus’s manner of speech toward her father and his insinuation that Mr. Ewell was the one who beat Mayella is probably terrifying and overwhelming for her.
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Atticus takes over questioning. He calls Mayella “miss” and “ma’am,” which offends her. Scout is flabbergasted and Judge Taylor assures Mayella that Atticus is just being polite. Atticus builds up a picture of the Ewells’ home life: Mr. Ewell spends the relief checks on alcohol, nobody goes to school, and the children are constantly ill. Mayella is offended when Atticus asks if she has friends. Atticus asks if Mr. Ewell is good to Mayella. Mayella starts to say that he’s not always good, and Atticus gently coaxes out that he’s not good when he’s drinking. Mayella defiantly says that Mr. Ewell has never beaten her. Atticus turns to the case and asks about Mayella’s injuries. She says that Tom both did and didn’t hit her.
The very fact that Mayella thinks that Atticus is out to get her speaks to how awful Mayella’s life is: nobody is kind to her, and she has far more responsibility than any 19-year-old should have. When Atticus is very nearly able to get Mayella to admit that her father beats her, it indicates that showing someone kindness and treating them like a person can be very meaningful—even if, in this case, it would lead Mayella to admit that she’s lying and ultimately come back to hurt her later.
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Atticus asks Mayella to identify her rapist, so she points at Tom. Atticus asks Tom to stand, and Scout sees that Robinson’s left arm is a foot shorter than his right, with a shriveled hand. Reverend Sykes whispers that it got caught in a cotton gin when he was a boy and it’s now useless. Atticus asks how Tom could’ve choked, beaten, and raped Mayella with one hand. He presses the issue, asks if Mayella screamed, and asks where the other children were. He asks if Tom or Mr. Ewell beat her up. When Atticus turns away from Mayella, he looks ill. Mayella announces that Tom raped her and refuses to say anything more. Scout isn’t sure what Atticus is doing.
Even if Mayella is doing a horrendous and evil thing by wrongfully accusing Tom of raping her, she probably believes that doing so is her only choice—Atticus has made it clear that if Mayella doesn’t fall into line, Mr. Ewell will beat her. He has shown that Mr. Ewell cares little for his children’s wellbeing in general. Atticus knows, in other words, that he may be putting Mayella in danger by suggesting she’s lying, even if he knows that it’s the right thing to do to free Tom, adding an additional layer of moral complexity to the case.
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Judge Taylor calls for a 10-minute break. Mr. Underwood snorts when he sees Scout, Jem, and Dill in the balcony. Scout knows that there are finer points to the trial, but she’s not sure what they are—everything seemed normal, aside from Mr. Gilmer’s obvious distaste for his witnesses. Judge Taylor returns and Scout punches Dill when Taylor pulls out a cigar and bites into it. Judge Taylor, Mr. Gilmer, and Atticus decide to finish for the day, since it’s already 4:00 p.m.
Scout isn’t totally aware of the danger that Mayella faces or the danger that Tom faces, regardless of the trial’s outcome. This points again to her youth and innocence, as it simply doesn’t occur to her that a supposedly impartial court verdict could endanger people or otherwise ruin their lives.
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