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Mayella Ewell is a character whom we are first introduced to in Chapter 18. Interestingly, she is a character that the reader hears a lot about before actually meeting her, and it is therefore very important to focus on how she is presented and described. The first impression that Scout seems to have of her suggests a somewhat contradictory impression:
A young girl walked to the witness stand... she seemed somehow fragile-looking, but when she sat facing us in the witness chair she became what she was, a thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labour.
Scout continues to describe how Mayella is a character who keeps clean, and it is clear from Scout's memory of the red geraniums in the Ewell's yard that appearances are important to her. In addition, Scout mentions that when Mayella begins to gain her confidence, there was something "stealthy" about her account of what happened, "like a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tale." These quotes from pages 196 and 198 in my edition suggest that she is a character who is somehow vulnerable beneath her rough exterior, and also present her as a somewhat calculating and deceitful character.
In Chapter 18, when Mayella is being questioned by Atticus, he calls her ma'am as a way of being polite. Mayella, schooled by her father to be skeptical of Atticus, thinks Atticus is mocking her. Scout thinks:
I wondered if anybody had ever called her "ma'am," or "Miss Mayella" in her life; probably not, as she took offense to routine courtesy. What on earth was her life like? I soon found out.
Atticus is demonstrating how poor and lonely Mayella's life had been with her irresponsible father. She was forced to quit school to help raise the children and Bob often used the family's relief check to buy alcohol. It was alsipresumed that Bob would become violent when he would drink. By the end of the questioning, it is clear to Scout that Atticus hads compassion for Mayella even though she is lying:
Somehow, Atticus had hit her hard in a way that was not clear to me, but it gave him no pleasure to do so.
In Chapter 19, when Tom Robinson is being questioned, Scout begins to understand even more about Mayella:
As Tom Robinson gave his testimony, it came to me that Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world. She was even lonelier than Boo Radley, who had not been out of the house in twenty-five years.
This feeling was even shared by Tom who said (same chapter) that he felt sorry for Mayella "Looked like she didn't have nobody to help her . . . "
Mayella is most certainly lying about Tom Robinson. But Atticus and Tom are sympathetic towards her because they both know how awful Mayella's life must be. Scout picks up on this.
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