Summary: Chapter 18
The trial continues, with the whole town glued to the proceedings. Mayella, who testifies next, is a reasonably clean—by the Ewells’ standards—and obviously terrified nineteen-year-old girl. She says that she called Tom Robinson inside the fence that evening and offered him a nickel to break up a dresser for her, and that once he got inside the house he grabbed her and took advantage of her. In Atticus’s cross-examination, Mayella reveals that her life consists of seven unhelpful siblings, a drunken father, and no friends.
Atticus then examines her testimony and asks why she didn’t put up a better fight, why her screams didn’t bring the other children running, and, most important, how Tom Robinson managed the crime: how he bruised the right side of her face with his useless left hand, which was torn apart by a cotton gin when he was a boy. Atticus pleads with Mayella to admit that there was no rape, that her father beat her. She shouts at him and yells that the courtroom would have to be a bunch of cowards not to convict Tom Robinson; she then bursts into tears, refusing to answer any more questions. In the recess that follows, Mr. Underwood notices the children up in the balcony, but Jem tells Scout that the newspaper editor won’t tell Atticus about their being there—although he might include it in the social section of the newspaper. The prosecution rests, and Atticus calls only one witness—Tom Robinson.
Summary: Chapter 19
Tom testifies that he always passed the Ewell house on the way to work and that Mayella often asked him to do chores for her. On the evening in question, he recounts, she asked him to come inside the house and fix a door. When he got inside, there was nothing wrong with the door, and he noticed that the other children were gone. Mayella told him she had saved her money and sent them all to buy ice cream. Then she asked him to lift a box down from a dresser. When Tom climbed on a chair, she grabbed his legs, scaring him so much that he jumped down. She then hugged him around the waist and asked him to kiss her. As she struggled, her father appeared at the window, calling Mayella a whore and threatening to kill her. Tom fled
Link Deas, Tom’s white employer, stands up and declares that in eight years of work, he has never had any trouble from Tom. Judge Taylor furiously expels Deas from the courtroom for interrupting. Mr. Gilmer gets up and cross-examines Tom. The prosecutor points out that the defendant was once arrested for disorderly conduct and gets Tom to admit that he has the strength, even with one hand, to choke the breath out of a woman and sling her to the floor. He begins to badger the witness, asking about his motives for always helping Mayella with her chores, until Tom declares that he felt sorry for her. This statement puts the courtroom ill at ease—in Maycomb, black people aren’t supposed to feel sorry for a white person. Mr. Gilmer reviews Mayella’s testimony, accusing Tom of lying about everything. Dill begins to cry, and Scout takes him out of the courtroom. Outside the courtroom, Dill complains to Scout about Mr. Gilmer’s rude treatment of Tom Robinson during the questioning. As they walk, Scout and Dill encounter Mr. Dolphus Raymond, the rich white man with the colored mistress and mulatto children.
Analysis: Chapters 18–19
Mayella Ewell is pitiable, and her miserable existence almost allows her to join the novel’s parade of innocent victims—she, too, is a kind of mockingbird, injured beyond repair by the forces of ugliness, poverty, and hatred that surround her. Lee’s presentation of Mayella emphasizes her role as victim—her father beats her and possibly molests her, while she has to deal with her unhelpful siblings. She has lacked kind treatment in her life to such an extent that when Atticus calls her Miss Mayella, she accuses him of making fun of her. She has no friends, and Scout seems justified in thinking that she “must have been the loneliest person in the world.” On the other hand, though, Scout’s picture of Mayella as a victim is marred by her attempt to become a victimizer, to destroy Tom Robinson in order to cover her shame. We can have little real sympathy for Mayella Ewell—whatever her sufferings, she inflicts worse cruelty on others. Unlike Mr. Cunningham, who, in Chapter 15, is touched enough by Scout’s human warmth to disperse the lynch mob, Mayella responds to Atticus’s polite interrogation with grouchy snarls.
Pity must be reserved for Tom Robinson, whose honesty and goodness render him supremely moral. Unlike the Ewells, Tom is hardworking and honest and has enough compassion to make the fatal mistake of feeling sorry for Mayella Ewell. His story is the true version of events: because of both Tom’s obviously truthful nature and Atticus’s brilliant and morally scathing questioning of the Ewells, the story leaves no room for doubt. A number of critics have objected that the facts of the case are crafted to be—no pun intended—too black and white. But, as Atticus’s awareness of his defeat as a foregone conclusion suggests, Lee was not interested in the believability of the trial. The exaggerated demarcation between good and bad renders the trial more important for its symbolic portrayal of the destruction of an innocent by evil. As clear as it is that Tom is innocent, it is equally clear that Tom is doomed to die.
Link Deas represents the diametric opposite of prejudice. The fact that Tom is black doesn’t factor into Deas’s assessment of him; rather, he is particularly conscientious about scrutinizing Tom only in respect to his individual character. However, just as the court refuses to accept the undeniable implications of the evidence that Atticus presents, so too does it refuse to accept the implications of Deas’s validation of Tom’s character. The judge expels Deas because his interjection during the proceedings threatens the integrity of the formal manner in which court proceedings are run; the grim irony, of course, is that the blatant prejudice of the trial does so as well, though the judge does nothing to alleviate this prejudice.
The reader is spared much of Mr. Gilmer’s harsh cross-examination of Tom when Dill’s crying takes Scout out of the courtroom. Dill is still a child, and he responds to wickedness with tears, much as the reader responds to Mr. Gilmer’s unabashed prejudice with disgust. The small sample of his cross-examination that Scout and the reader do hear is enough. Calling Tom “boy” and accusing him at every turn, the racist Mr. Gilmer believes that Tom must be lying, must be violent, must lust after white women—simply because he is black.