How does Tom Robinson show compassion and empathy towards others in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird?

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Tom Robinson testifies in chapter 19 of To Kill a Mockingbird, we learn his account of his relationship with the Ewells. Of course, it is Mayella Ewell whom Tom is accused of raping, the crime for which he is on trial. We learn through Atticus Finch's questions and Tom's responses that he was quite empathetic and generous toward the Ewells, which makes their accusations toward him even more vicious.

Tom has to go by the Ewell home to get to work, so he would often help Mayella with work around the house. Tom testifies that she asked him for help on many occasions: "she asked me to come inside the fence and bust up a chiffarobe for her" (191); "Seemed like everytime I passed by yonder she'd have some little somethin' for me to do—choppin' kindlin', totin' water for her" (191). Tom is happy to help and is generous with his time.

Mayella assumes she will have to pay him a nickel after the first task, but he tells her there is no charge. Tom further testifies that he never charges the Ewells for his services. This shows his compassionate nature, not just because he is willing to help them with no benefit to himself, but also because he knows they are poor and does not want to increase their poverty by taking their money.

Tom indicates that he would never go onto the Ewell property without an invitation; he respects their space and only steps on the premises when asked to assist with a job. Even when Mayella suddenly accosts Tom and wants him to kiss her, he tries to let her down easy because he doesn't want to hurt her feelings. His testimony shows that Tom is, at heart, a good person and simply a victim of the racism of his community.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson show compassion, ironically, toward  the character that is accusing him of rape.  Near the end of the trial for the rape of Mayella Ewell, Atticus puts Robinson on the stand to testify in his own defense. When Atticus asks Tom if he had ever spoken to Mayella, Tom tells a story about a time when Mayella asked him to come inside the house to “bust up a chiffarobe.” At the end of the story he says:

She said, I reckon I’ll hafta give you a nickel, won’t I? an’ I said, No, ma’am, there ain’t no charge.

This line shows Tom, who was very poor himself, turning down money to help out Mayella.

A short while later, Tom is cross-examined by the prosecutor. When the prosecutor sarcastically says,

You’re a mighty good fellow, it seems—did all this for not one penny?

Tom responds with,

Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em—“

This line shows that Tom, even though he is poor and victimized by a racist society, is able to care for others. Tom’s pity for Mayella, while admirable, gets him in trouble. It wasn’t considered proper for a black person to feel sorry for a white person in those days in the deep south.

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Throughout the trial, the audience learns that Tom Robinson is a magnanimous individual who shows empathy toward Mayella Ewell. Tom Robinson would routinely stop to help Mayella complete household chores on his way home and refused to accept any form of compensation from her. When Mr. Gilmer asks Tom why he did not take any money for his work, Tom makes the mistake of telling the prosecuting attorney that he felt sorry for Mayella. Tom sympathizes with Mayella by realizing that she is the only person in her family who takes care of the children and their home. He goes out of his way to lend Mayella a hand by offering her help for free. Unfortunately, Tom finds himself in a compromising position when Mayella makes advances toward him. 

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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