How does Mayella Ewell's situation illustrate the intersection between race and class?

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Mayella and the Ewells in general occupy a unique position in Maycomb. Among the white townspeople, they rank about as low as one can get due to their poverty and lack of class-based manners. They would be considered "white trash." They are looked down upon by everyone else. However, their whiteness does lend them some privileges in specific situations, such as the Tom Robinson trial.

Mayella may be poor and looked down upon as trashy, but she is also a white woman and this means the racist townsfolk are more willing to take her word over Tom's. As a black man, Tom gets no respect from the town whatsoever. In this period and place, black men were often considered violent and hypersexual, and a particular danger to white women. White racists preyed upon the fear of miscegenation and black-on-white rape, arguing that if not kept in their place, black men would have their way with helpless white women at any opportunity.

Even though Tom is gentle and a family man, and even though all the evidence supports his innocence, his being a black man condemns him in the eyes of the all-white jury from the beginning. Mayella might not win such a case were she accusing a white man of raping her, due to being very low on the social class totem pole, but because she is white, her word is privileged over Tom's.

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Even though much of the plot in To Kill A Mockingbird revolves around her, Mayella Ewell is one of the least-developed characters in the novel. But she has significance other than her role in the plot: it becomes her duty to fulfill the role of the pure and helpless Southern Woman.

Mayella Ewell's father Bob, a drunkard who represents the ignorance and hateful prejudice of the South, is probably the least-sympathetic character in the novel. The Ewells are Maycomb's poorest residents, living behind the town dump from which they scavenge everything from the roofing material for their shack to some of the food they eat. They make their shoes out of old tires, wash only when they feel like hauling water from the other side of the dump, and are often sick (Lee, pp. 172, 185). It's a dirty, trashy yard except for the one corner where Mayella grows her red geraniums in scavenged slop pails. The care she clearly gives the flowers may represent her desire for the finer life of a stereotypical Southern woman. Scout makes it clear that "people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression" (p. 172). The Ewells were only ever tolerated, not welcomed.

There is a big shift in sentiment toward Mayella Ewell when Tom is accused of raping her. Suddenly, Mayella is not the trashy, ugly guest at the table; rather, she becomes representative of the genteel, white, Southern Woman, something Atticus Finch calls a "polite fiction" (Lee, p. 149). In order to justify sentencing a man to death, Mayella has to be believable as a fragile, helpless woman who must be protected at all costs by the heroic Southern white gentleman. Suddenly, Mayella is not the ugly squatter from the dump:

A young girl walked to the witness stand. As she raised her hand and swore that the evidence she gave would be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help her God, she seemed somehow fragile-looking (p. 181).

Now Mayella is a young girl, frightened and fragile, and in need of saving.

Mayella herself contributes to this picture by crying in fear--whether mock or not is hard to tell--at being on the stand and telling everyone how she was just too weak to chop up the cabinet for kindling as her father had asked her to do. The judge responds heroically to her tears: "'That’s enough now. Don’t be ‘fraid of anybody here, as long as you tell the truth. All this is strange to you, I know, but you’ve nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to fear'" (p. 181). In her final moments in the courtroom, and in the novel, Mayella calls on the men to be men and to protect her dignity and her position as part of the privileged white class:

I got somethin‘ to say an’ then I ain’t gonna say no more. That nigger yonder took advantage of me an‘ if you fine fancy gentlemen don’t wanta do nothin’ about it then you’re all yellow stinkin‘ cowards, stinkin’ cowards, the lot of you. Your fancy airs don’t come to nothin‘—your ma’amin’ and Miss Mayellerin‘ don’t come to nothin’, Mr. Finch (p. 191).
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