How is tension created during the trial in Chapter 17 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Author Harper Lee builds the tension of the trial slowly, beginning with the relatively routine testimony of Sheriff Heck Tate. The questions by the out-of-town prosecutor, Horace Gilmer, provide only basic answers from Tate, but Atticus quickly establishes two key points: Mayella Ewell was never treated by a doctor; and the injuries she sustained were on the right side of her face and all around her neck. This information puzzled most of the spectators and Scout thought that "So far, things were utterly dull." But the appearance of Bob Ewell immediately changes things. Bob rudely refers to Gilmer as "cap'n," and then he follows with several off-color remarks, drawing a warning from Judge Taylor. But Bob is not through, bringing the entire courtroom to an uproar when 

He stood up and pointed his finger at Tom Robinson. "--I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin' on my Mayella!"  (Chapter 17)

It took five minutes of Judge Taylor hammering his gavel to still the furor. The Negroes in the balcony emittted "an angry muffled groan." But by the time Atticus finished his questioning, it was Bob who had been embarrassed. Questioning his literacy and his honesty, Atticus managed to establish that Bob was left-handed, angering Ewell, who believed Atticus was "taking advantage" of him with his "tricking ways." The humiliated Bob left the stand, "glaring at the defense table" as he returned to his seat. Jem believed the trial was already over: Atticus had proven that Bob was left-handed and could have beaten Mayella himself. But Scout was not so sure: Looking at Tom's "broad shoulders and bull-thick neck," she thought that Tom "could easily have done it," too. The tension would only rise in the next chapter when Mayella took the stand.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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