How is the cross examination of Tom Robinson different from that of Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The cross-examination of Tom Robinson differs from that of Mayella Ewell in the attitudes taken by the two lawyers toward the witnesses, and in the nature of their questions.

  • Cross-examination of Mayella Ewell

When she first takes the witness stand Mayella tells Judge Taylor that she does not want Atticus "doin' me like he done Papa, tryin' make him out left-handed" even though Mr. Gilmer will question her first. Then, when it is Atticus's turn to cross examine, she complains that he is "sassing" her by addressing her as "Ma'am" or "Miss Mayella." Nevertheless, he continues to be polite to her, although he asks many questions about her home life and background and the circumstances of the alleged rape.
Then Atticus asks Mayella if the day of the rape were the first time Tom Robinson were invited into her house. Mayella starts a little, then she says that it was. Further, Atticus inquires if Mayella remembers being beaten in the face, and she at first says no, then she corrects her answer to yes. In order to display her lack of credibility, Atticus asks her a number of questions such as whether she screamed when Tom attacked her and if he knocked her down and hit her in the face; also, he asks if Tom choked her, or if any of the other children heard her screams. Finally, Atticus asks Mayella if Tom beat her or if her father had. Mayella becomes angry and lashes out at the jury insulting them. Judge Taylor does not hold her in contempt, perhaps, because she is so backward.  
Throughout all his questioning, Atticus has been thorough, but always polite and professional.

  • Cross-examination of Tom Robinson

In contrast to the professionalism and politeness of Atticus's cross-examination of Mayella, Mr. Gilmer immediately tries to cast aspersions upon Tom Robinson's character. First he brings up a disorderly conduct charge from the past, and then he insinuates that Tom is strong enough to choke a girl, aggressively questioning him and using the insulting word nigger and further addressing Tom with the deprecating term of "boy." He tries to entrap Tom by asking him if Mayella has lied about some things, but Tom simply says that she "is mistaken in her mind." Then, when Mr. Gilmer asks Tom why he has helped Mayella, Tom speaks from his heart before he weighs the consequences of his sentence," I felt sorry for her."
"You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?" (No black should feel sorry for a white as that implies a feeling of superiority.)

Further, when Mr. Gilmer asks Tom why he ran, Tom replies that he was afraid he would end up in court just as he certainly is. Then, Mr. Gilmer challenges Tom in a demeaning manner:

"Sacred 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."
"Are you being impudent to me, boy?"
"No suh, I didn't go to be."

Mr. Gilmer talks "so hateful" to Tom as Dill later complains when he cries and has to go outside. 

 

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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