To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, why does Atticus begin by asking Mayella a lot of questions about herself and her family?  

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Harrison Murray, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Mayella Ewell has accused Tom Robinson of attacking and raping her, and Atticus is Tom's defending lawyer. We know several things about Atticus: he is a compassionate man, and he is Tom's best chance at a fair trial. Most importantly, Atticus tells Scout in chapter 3 that "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view," and it is just this perspective that Atticus brings to Tom's defense. In order for jurors to understand what really happened to Mayella Ewell, he needs the jurors to consider Mayella's point of view.

Atticus is well aware of the kind of life Mayella has lived, and it brings him pain to expose the details of her miserable existence to the entire courtroom. Scout notes that near the beginning of Atticus's questioning, he walks to the witness stand like "he was trying to come to a decision about something." And later, when Mayella is nearing her breakdown, Scout notices that "when Atticus turned away from Mayella he looked like his stomach hurt." Atticus understands what he has intentionally exposed.

But, by providing the context of her family life, the jury learns how Mayella is not a credible witness. Her father is an alcoholic and drinks away the money they could use for food. The kids are forever sick and generally unhealthy. Mayella's father has taught her that education is not important, and therefore no one is sent to school. She also has no friends.

By creating this image of Mayella, the jury sees that she is a lonely, destitute young girl with no hope of happiness in her environment. And, therefore, if someone showed her the least bit of kindness, she likely would find that appealing—as all people long for meaningful interactions. Unfortunately, Tom's kindness to Mayella was his undoing, and Atticus opens that door of thought through his initial questioning.

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Atticus begins to question Mayella about herself and her family in order to "paint a picture" of the Ewells' home life for the jury. The Ewells are the most despicable, trashy family in all of Maycomb County. Atticus' technique is to illuminate the atrocious living conditions and pitiful circumstances that the Ewells are accustomed to. By exposing the Ewells' background, Atticus will hopefully be able to convince the jury that the Ewells are both capable of lying and prove that Mayella had the motivation to attempt to seduce Tom Robinson. The jury learns that Mayella has no friends, lives with an alcoholic father, and takes care of her siblings all by herself. The jurors are made aware of Mayella's loneliness and sorry situation, which could possibly influence their decision. Mayella's pitiful, lonely home life could be motivation to seek affection from Tom Robinson, the only man who would pay her any mind. By drawing attention to the Ewells' inhumane living conditions and Bob Ewell's alcoholic tendencies, Atticus hopes to portray the Ewells as what they truly are.

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