Atticus calls Tom to the stand. With Atticus’s questioning, Tom says that he’s 25, has three children, and served 30 days in jail for disorderly conduct a while ago. He explains that he works for Mr. Deas year-round and passes the Ewell house to get to and from work. He often greeted Mayella, and last spring she asked him to chop up a chiffarobe. He refused the nickel she offered, but after that, Mayella often asked him to do small tasks for her. Tom explains that the children were always around, but never helped Mayella, and Mr. Ewell didn’t either.
Tom shows here that he’s a kind and empathetic individual, and that he recognized Mayella’s humanity and sought to respect it by helping her. This begins to show that in this sense, Tom is far more upstanding and respectable than Mr. Ewell is, something that Maycomb’s racist white population would likely insist is impossible given many in town believe that any white person, no matter how unsavory, is better than a black person.
Scout realizes that Mayella must be the loneliest person in the world and is probably lonelier than Boo Radley. White people shun her because of her poverty, while black people want nothing to do with her because she’s white. She’s not like Mr. Raymond, who can spend time with black people because he’s wealthy. Scout thinks that Tom was probably the only person to ever be kind to her. She listens to him say that he’d never enter the Ewells’ yard without an invitation and believes him. Atticus asks what happened on the night of the alleged rape.
This is a major turning point for Scout, as she begins to understand the horrible and lonely situation that both Mayella and Tom are in. She also recognizes how someone like Mr. Raymond can get away with breaking social codes simply because he’s white and wealthy, whereas Tom’s very livelihood is in danger for allegedly doing the same as a black man. Additionally, accepting that Mayella is human is and important and brave thought process for Scout, as it requires her to be empathetic to her enemy.
Tom says that the Ewell place seemed quiet. He entered the yard at Mayella’s invitation and when she asked him to look at the door, entered the house. The door was fine, but Mayella closed the door and explained that she saved money to send the children to town to buy ice cream. He praised her for this and then at her request, stood on a chair to get a box off of an armoire. While he was there, she grabbed him around the legs, scaring him. He jumped down and knocked the chair over. Tom looks terrified as he says that Mayella hugged him. The courtroom explodes momentarily, and Tom continues that Mayella kissed his cheek. Mayella told him that what Mr. Ewell does to her “doesn’t count,” and then Mr. Ewell appeared. Mr. Ewell threatened to kill Mayella, and Tom ran away.
Tom has good reason to be scared—due to the likely combination of sexist and racist beliefs in the community, the idea that a white woman would willingly touch a black man in an inappropriate manner is likely unthinkable to many in this courtroom. When Tom repeats Mayella’s insistence that what Mr. Ewell does to her “doesn’t count,” it heavily implies that Mr. Ewell sexually abuses Mayella. If this is the case, Mayella perpetuated that abuse onto someone else by choosing to touch Tom without his consent. For her, Tom is vulnerable, just as she’s vulnerable to her father.
Tom insists he didn’t rape Mayella, and that he ran because he was scared—being black, he couldn’t have fought back differently. Mr. Gilmer rises as Mr. Deas announces that he’s never had any trouble from Tom. Judge Taylor throws Mr. Deas out. Mr. Gilmer asks about Tom’s disorderly conduct charge and asks if he’s strong enough to throw a woman to the floor. Tom admits that he probably is, but he never has. Mr. Gilmer leads Tom to admit that he felt sorry for Mayella. They go through Mayella’s testimony and Tom insists that Mayella is mistaken. He insists that he ran because he was scared, and now he’s ended up in court for something he didn’t do.
Tom understands that as a black man, he’d be in even more trouble if he’d pushed Mayella or otherwise fought harder to get away. Doing so would play right into the racist belief that all black men are violent rapists and a threat to white women, the belief on which Mr. Ewell is basing his entire case. When Mr. Deas stands up for Tom, it shows Scout that there’s another person in town who’s not racist and who’s willing to courageously stand up for what’s right, even if he knows he’ll get thrown out. This reaffirms Atticus’s lesson that courage means doing what is right even in the face of opposition or failure.
Dill starts to cry uncontrollably, so Jem sends him out with Scout. Outside, they greet Mr. Deas and sit under an oak tree. Dill says that he couldn’t stand the way that Mr. Gilmer spoke to Tom, calling him “boy” and sneering. Scout points out that Tom is “just a Negro,” but Dill says it’s not right to talk to anyone that way. Scout and Dill argue, but Mr. Raymond interrupts them in support of Dill.