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Hello! It’s been a hot minute! For anyone who is new around here, I’m Elodie, and I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird and having thoughts about it. For instance, Bob Ewell sucks, Miss Maudie is who I want to be when I grow up, and Atticus possesses an energy in the courtroom that is downright Elle Woodsian. Those are just a few examples of the kinds of thoughts I bring to the table.
Anyway! Last time, Bob Ewell and his daughter, Mayella, testified in court, and Atticus pretty much destroyed them in front of God and everybody. Now he’s calling Tom Robinson to the stand.
Here’s what we know about Tom Robinson:
Has three kids
Has been in trouble with the law only once before; another man tried to cut him and he defended himself
Got his left arm caught in a cotton gin as a child and can only use his right
That’s it, that’s all we know
Although Tom Robinson is a huge part of the story, we don’t actually know very much about him. In fact, today’s the first time Scout’s gotten a good look at him, which is why she didn’t previously know what the deal was with his arm or that there was even a deal to speak of.
So Tom gives his side of the story, which—surprise!—differs greatly from Mayella’s. Mayella claims she asked Tom to bust up a chiffarobe for her, which is when he attacked her. However, Tom says he busted up the chiffarobe way last spring, and nobody attacked anybody. More recently, Mayella invited him inside to fix a door that wasn’t even broken, at which point she kissed him. Her father saw this through the window and started shouting, so Tom ran—but not before he heard Bob Ewell call his own daughter a whore and threaten to kill her. You know, like any upstanding, credible gentleman would do.
Tom says Mayella saved up nickels for a year just to get the kids out of the house that day. Seems like Mayella had something of a crush on Tom Robinson—probably, Scout thinks, because Mayella is even lonelier than Boo Radley, a guy who, lest we forget, hasn’t left his house in multiple decades.
Bear in mind: Mayella has a violent, abusive racist for a father and she doesn’t even know what a friend is. She spends most of her time taking care of her siblings, and all of Maycomb pretty much hates her due to the fact that she comes from a long line of dirtbags, a fact she’s powerless to change. Possibly Tom Robinson is the only person who ever showed her any kindness, and she’s repaying that kindness by accusing him of something he didn’t do, knowing full well what will happen to him as a result.
In fact, Mayella doomed him long before she accused him. When she kissed him, she gave him an impossible choice: he could either go with it, he could forcibly resist her advances, or he could run. The second one would get him killed. The third, which is the option he went with, makes him look guilty. Even the first would not have guaranteed him freedom or peace of mind. Had he entered into some sort of relationship with her, Mayella could have turned the situation around on him whenever she felt like it, putting him at her mercy.
Mayella may be, essentially, powerless, but she certainly has power over Tom.
Suddenly Mr. Link Deas—a white man who employed Tom Robinson for eight years—gets up and begins yelling in Tom’s defense, saying he “ain’t had a speck o’trouble outa him,” which gets him ejected from the courtroom. Now it’s time for the prosecutor to question Tom.
I suppose the prosecutor, Mr. Gilmer, is just doing his job, if his job is to be a racist jerk. He really hammers Tom on the disorderly conduct charge he got that one time, and he tries to make it seem like Tom had a thing for Mayella. “Really GENEROUS of you, chopping up all that wood for her out of the KINDNESS OF YOUR HEART,” he basically says. “Like, WHO DOES THAT? Hooligans and sexual deviants is who.”
Eventually, he gets Tom to admit that he felt sorry for Mayella. The entire courtroom gasps. Apparently, there can be no greater crime than a black man feeling sorry for a white woman. Not even attempted murder, which pretty much everyone in this town has done. (Remember when Scout and Jem almost set someone on fire?)
Dill (remember Dill? Dill is also here) starts crying, so Scout and Jem hustle him out of the courtroom. Once outside, Dill says the way Mr. Gilmer was treating Tom wasn’t right—the way he was talking circles around him and addressing him as “boy” all the time with a contempt he was barely bothering to hide.
Suddenly, a dude appears. It’s Mr. Dolphus Raymond, who you probably don’t remember because why would you? We saw him for like two seconds a few chapters ago. Anyway, he’s the guy who’s always drunk and had a relationship with a black woman, resulting in several mixed-race children. Interested? Well, you’ll have to wait until the next chapter to find out what his deal is.
“But you weren’t in a fix—you testified that you were resisting Miss Ewell. Were you scared that she’d hurt you, you ran, a big buck like you?”
“No suh, I’s scared I’d be in court, just like I am now.”
“Scared of arrest, scared you’d have to face up to what you did?”
“No suh, scared I’d hafta face up to what I didn’t do.”
THIS AND THAT
It’s interesting that Link Deas gets kicked out of the courtroom. His outburst disrupts the order of the court, echoing an all-too-recent sentiment that politeness and civility are more important than empathy and justice.
These chapters are as much of Tom Robinson as we’re going to get. On the one hand, Scout doesn’t interact with him much (read: at all), and she’s our narrator, so it sort of makes sense. On the other, one of To Kill a Mockingbird’s shortcomings is that Tom Robinson is a victim and a symbol first, and a character second—and not even a very nuanced character at that.
Should we be feeling sorry for Mayella, and to what extent? Or does her willingness to harm others render her less pitiable?
What would the novel be like if it were from Tom Robinson’s perspective?