How does Tom show empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird?  

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tom Robinson showed empathy for Mayella Ewell. His compassion was cruelly misinterpreted according to the racist ideals of the time, which dictate that a black man should never be above a white person. 

The trouble started because Tom Robinson was such a nice person.  He looked out for Mayella Ewell because he recognized that her living conditions were terrible.  He noticed that she was all alone, but he did not realize that she was taking advantage of his kindness. 

Mayella Ewell was just a lonely young woman.  Her family was very poor, and like everyone else in her family she was illiterate.  Ewell children only went to school on the first day.  Mayella was left having to take care of all of her younger siblings, and had no friends.  She didn’t seem to understand the concept when Atticus asked her about them. 

Tom Robinson lived near Mayella, and she would ask him to do little chores for her.  He agreed, because she had no one else to help her.  During the trial, Tom Robinson made the mistake of telling people that he felt sorry for her.  This was a tragic mistake. 

Saying that he felt sorry for Mayella Ewell put Tom Robinson above her, and that was deemed inappropriate because she was white and he was black. According to the racist ideals of Maycomb, Tom should never act superior to a white woman.  Mr. Gilmer made a big deal out of this. 

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

“You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for he?” Mr. Gilmer seemed ready to rise to the ceiling.

The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. But the damage was done. (Ch. 19) 

This one mistake dooms him.  Mr. Gilmer takes advantage of it, and also tries to make it seem as if Tom Robinson was not helping Mayella out of the kindness of his heart.  He belittles him, calling him “boy.”  Tom Robinson remains polite and respectful, however.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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