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In Chapter 18 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella Ewell, the young woman who falsely accuses an African American man of raping her, takes the witness stand in the trial. Since she is the "victim" of a violent crime--and a particularly inflammatory one in the deeply racist town in which the story takes place--Mayella's testimony is extremely important. While the reader is aware that Tom is highly unlikely to receive a fair trial in the American South of the 1930s, we do not yet know the full extent of the injustice that is taking place—in effect, that Tom is physically incapable of having committed the crime. We do know, however, that justice is not being served.
When Mayella takes the stand, testifying against Tom, she is, expectedly, hostile to Atticus's questioning. As described by Scout, the story's narrator, Mayella "was looking at him [Atticus] like she was mad as hell." Mayella has already witnessed Atticus's cross-examination of her father, the virulently racist and despicable Bob Ewell, and she is very defensive during the questioning. Atticus is attempting to establish the atmosphere that no doubt exists in the Ewell household. Bob is a notorious drunk, and the family is known to be among the poorest in the county. Mayella, a 19-year-old girl without an education forced by circumstances into the role of parent to her younger siblings, is vulnerable to the manipulations of individuals in positions of power, including her father. All of this is known to Atticus, who then poses the question regarding Mayella's feelings about her father:
“Do you love your father, Miss Mayella?” was his next question.
“Love him, whatcha mean?”
“I mean, is he good to you, is he easy to get along with?”
“He does tollable, ‘cept when –”
Mayella looked at her father and he sat up straight and waited for her to answer.
“Except when nothin’,” said Mayella. “I said he does tollable.”
Mr. Ewell leaned back in his chair again.
“Except when he’s drinking?” asked Atticus so gently that Mayella nodded.
“Does he ever go after you?”
"How do you mean?”
“When he’s—riled, has he ever beaten you?”
Mayella does not answer Atticus's question the way one would normally expect. As Atticus makes clear to no avail, Bob Ewell is almost certainly solely responsible for Mayella's wounds. Mayella does not, the reader can safely conclude, love this figure of authority who drinks away the welfare check while physically abusing his barely-adult daughter, whose existence is confined to the shack in which the family lives and where she is forced to parent six younger siblings.
Mayella does evade the question, suggesting that her father does "tollable" if he isn't drinking. Mayella is considered the "woman" of the house in that she must take care of the other children, clean, and cook. She hasn't had a childhood of her own, and there's no doubt that Bob beats her when he's drinking. We don't know what other horrors she must endure at her father's hand. There's no way that Mayella loves her father, but at this point, she has no one else to turn to and nowhere else to go. Mayella reached out to Tom because she's lonely and needs someone to care about her. The Ewell family, even though they are poor and trashy, are white, however, and this puts them a notch above Tom Robinson as a decent, black man. Atticus is sickened at this injustice and prejudice, and he knows from the start that he probably won't win the trial. He desperately tries to get Mayella to do the right thing and tell the truth, but her fear of her father is too great. He would definitely beat her if she told the truth, and she knows this.
Mayella is evasive about the question. She that he "does tolerable," but will never admit that she loves him.
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