How does Haper Lee create bias or sympathy for the character of Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In To Kill a Mockingbird, our sympathies are with Tom Robinson.  However, we also sympathize with his accuser, Mayella Ewell, because Lee deftly portrays her not as immoral but as a victim.

As Tom Robinson gave his testimony, it came to me that Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world. (ch 19)

Mayella Ewell is the young girl who accuses Tom Robinson of rape.  Since we know that there was no rape, the reader would expect to have no sympathy for Mayella.  However, Lee carefully paints her as a victim of circumstances. 

Our first introduction to Mayella is the description of the squalor she lives in, which is broken by “six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums” (ch 17).  Mayella is a spark of brightness is an otherwise dismal world.  The reader begins to wonder about Mayella.

When Mayella’s father takes the stand, the reader instantly develops sympathy for her.  He is coarse, vulgar, stubborn and violent.  He describes her as a “stuck pig” and jokes that he doesn’t know if he is really her father and can’t do anything about it because her mother’s dead.  When Atticus questions him, he admits he did not call for a doctor when he supposedly caught Tom Robinson raping her.  His questioning goes on to make it clear that it was Ewell, not Tom, who hurt Mayella.

When Atticus questions Mayella, you feel even sorrier for her. She tells a story of a sad, lonely life of abuse and neglect.  Atticus does not want the jury to hate or blame Mayella.  He wants them to sympathize with her and realize that her father put her up to everything, and she only accused Tom Robinson of rape because she got caught having a friendship with him, which was unacceptable because he was black.

Lee carefully contrasts Mayella and her father.  While Bob Ewell is covered in a layer of grime, Mayella “looked as if she tried to keep clean” (ch 18).  When Atticus is polite to her, she thinks he is making fun of her.  Scout begins to wonder about Mayella, and asks her brother if she has got “sense.”

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. (ch 18)

Scout wonders what Mayella’s life is like, and Atticus carefully coaxes it out of her.  Her father subjects his family to a life of poverty and depravity, where Mayella is the only one taking care of a brood of dirty, ungrateful kids.  By the time her testimony is over, we don’t just feel sorry for Tom Robinson, we feel sorry for Mayella too.  She clearly did not want to accuse Tom.  She was in a situation beyond her control.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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