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As we’ve discussed, everything I know about the judicial system comes from Law & Order: SVU, Legally Blonde, and that one episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Which is to say I know very little about the judicial system, other than it involves a no-nonsense judge, attorneys objecting to things left, right, and center, and a big Eureka moment towards the end that unequivocally settles the case in the hearts and minds of the jury. These next few chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird have just about all of those things. Let’s get into it.
So in chapter 18, Mayella Ewell is called to the stand. Mr. Gilmer, the prosecutor, is only able to ask her a handful of questions before she bursts into tears because she’s afraid of Atticus tricking her the way he tricked her dad.
(I think we can all agree that revealing a person to be left-handed isn’t exactly trickery. If Atticus wanted to trick Bob Ewell, he would’ve said “a loser says what” and Bob Ewell would’ve been like “what” and Judge Taylor would have had to call for order in the courtroom from the sheer magnitude of people shouting “GOT ‘EM.”)
Anyway, Mayella alleges that she was on the porch when Tom Robinson passed by the house. She asked him to come inside and break up a chifforobe for her (it’s like a wardrobe or an armoire), at which point he attacked her. Her dad showed up, Tom Robinson ran, and the sheriff arrived not long after.
When Atticus gets up to question her, Mayella is not having it. She is not even in the general vicinity of having it. He addresses her as “ma’am” and “Miss Mayella,” to which she takes great offense, assuming Atticus is mocking her. I’m the same way. No one calls me “ma’am” unless I’m making a scene because I’ve never had crème brûlée this good and they want me to leave the restaurant lest I scare off the other patrons.
The judge assures Mayella that Atticus is simply being polite. He says, “Let the record show that the witness has not been sassed, her views to the contrary.” That’s a real line from the book and not something that would definitely only happen if I were on the witness stand in real life.
Atticus asks a few questions. In doing so, he paints a picture of the Ewells’ home life. They’re extremely poor, and Bob Ewell drinks away what little money they do have. The children are constantly sick and covered in dirt, and Mayella is the oldest of eight.
He asks her if she has any friends, and she doesn’t appear to know what he means, which is super sad. He asks if she loves her father. She says he’s tolerable, except when he drinks. Yikes. When asked if her father has ever hit her, she says, “My paw’s never touched a hair o’ my head in my life.”
Now, onto the reason we’re all here. Mayella claims this was the first time she’d ever invited Tom Robinson inside the fence. She claims Tom immediately choked her and hit her. She describes a violent attack that resulted in (as we know) much bruising on the right side of her face, most likely the work of a left-handed person. Her story begins to fall apart when she makes contradictory statements, when she can’t explain why her siblings (who she claims were nearby) didn’t hear the commotion, and when (drumroll) Tom Robinson stands up to reveal he has a physical disability. His left arm is a foot shorter than his right, and his hand is small and shriveled, rendering Mayella’s claim that Tom was the one who beat her pretty unlikely, if not impossible.
Guys, Atticus just dropped an Elle Woodsian bomb on these proceedings.
Atticus then hits Mayella with an uncomfortable line of questioning. Why didn’t she run? Did she scream? “You’re a strong girl, what were you doing all the time, just standing there?” Did she only scream when she saw her father in the window, not before? Was it Tom Robinson who beat her, or her father?
Mayella makes one final claim—that Tom Robinson took advantage of her—and refuses to say anything more. This seems like as good a time as any to take a break, so they do. After ten minutes, they begin again. Atticus says he only has one witness to call: Tom Robinson.
“Somehow, Atticus had hit her hard in a way that was not clear to me, but it gave him no pleasure to do so. He sat with his head down, and I never saw anybody glare at anyone with the hatred Mayella showed when she left the stand and walked by Atticus’s table.”
THIS AND THAT
Whew. Okay. This was a thorny, thorny chapter, and there’s lots to talk down here in the margins. We’re living in a time when women are finally coming forward about rape and sexual assault after being systematically silenced for decades, so it makes sense that Atticus’s questions come off sounding like the worst sort of victim-blaming. And boy, do they. Let’s be clear: just because someone doesn’t fight back doesn’t mean they weren’t raped. Whether or not they scream or call for help has no bearing on whether or not the assault occurred.
What we’re dealing with here is an intersection of race and gender politics. On the one hand, women saying they’ve been raped and being met with disbelief is a Big Deal, historically and currently. On the other, white people accusing black people of crimes they didn’t commit is also a Big Deal historically and currently (see: Emmett Till). Both of these things are important. Both are the result of power imbalances and societal inequalities, which is, I think, the sticking point.
Mayella is a woman in a world where being a woman comes with expectations, limitations, and misogyny on the daily, but she’s also a white woman in 1935 and will therefore always be prioritized above a person of color. She possesses privilege and power that Tom Robinson does not. Do I like that Atticus asked these things of her, made these implications? Of course not. Neither did he. See “notable quotes.”
Thoughts on the above? My word isn’t gospel. I’m just spitballing here and would like to say, for the record, that I don’t actually know a single thing about anything.