In To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella Ewell takes offense to Atticus's politeness toward her. What might this indicate about Mayella?
Mayella Ewell has a completely opposite upbringing than Scout does. Even though Aunt Alexandra worries about how Scout will turn out, Mayella is certainly worse. Of course it's not Mayella's fault for the way she is, but she's so uneducated and sheltered from good society that she doesn't even know what it means to be polite or to have someone be polite to her. When Atticus refers to her as "Miss Mayella," she takes offense because she's never been in polite enough company to hear someone refer to her that way. Since Mayella is surrounded by ignorance, mistreatment, and impoliteness, she sees these things as normal. Anything different, then, she would see as disrespectful. Judge Taylor doesn't even understand why Mayella can't tell the difference between courtesy and disrespect by saying the following:
"'Mr. Finch is not making fun of you. What's the matter with you?'
Mayella looked from under lowered eyelids at Atticus, but she said to the judge: 'Long's he keeps on callin' me ma'am an sayin' Miss Mayella. I don't hafta take his sass, I ain't called upon to take it'" (182).
Then Scout's reaction to this interchange brings her to feeling compassion for Mayella:
"I wondered if anybody had ever called her 'ma'am' or 'Miss Mayella' in her life; probably not, as she took offense to routine courtesy. What on earth was her life like? I soon found out" (182).
Scout then hears how horrible Mayella's life is by the life she soon describes for the court. Her father spends their welfare checks on alcohol, the kids search for food in the dump next to their house, and life was on a fend for yourself basis. There was no loving mother or father around to take care of the children, so anything that resembles kindness is completely foreign to Mayella. Therefore, when Atticus shows common courtesy to her, Mayella perceives it as cruel and unusual.
Recall the type of home that Mayella has come from: rough, ignorant, and poor. It stands to reason that in such a situation, manners and courtesy are the lowest of priorities. When examining the character of Bob Ewell, one realizes that he is not only poor, but also coarse -- his words are not kind, and this is a direct contrast to Atticus.
Mayella construes Atticus's niceties for condescension; she feels that because he is treating her with respect, that he must be in some way making fun of her. One responds positively to that which is familiar; in this case, Atticus's mannerly approach is totally unfamiliar to Mayella Ewell.