To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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In Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, why does Tom Robinson say he helped Mayella? Why is it a "mistake" for him to say this?

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In chapter 19, Tom Robinson is on the witness stand when Mr. Gilmer proceeds to ask why he regularly offered to help Mayella Ewell complete her various chores without receiving any monetary compensation for his efforts. Tom Robinson is depicted as a morally upright, helpful man and responds to Mr. Gilmer's question by telling him

"I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em—" (Lee, 201).

The jury and the audience are astonished and appalled when they hear Tom say that he felt sorry for Mayella. Scout mentions that nobody liked Tom's response, and he immediately realized that he had made a costly mistake. In Maycomb's racist, segregated society, it is unheard of for a black man to pity a white woman. It is considered taboo for a black person to pity any white citizen, which is why the prejudiced jurors and audience are appalled by Tom's answer. Tom's response dramatically impacts the jurors's decision, and he eventually becomes a victim of racial injustice after being wrongfully convicted of assaulting and raping Mayella Ewell.

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mrshh eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Mr. Gilmer questioned Tom Robinson on the witness stand.  He asked him why he came into the Ewell's yard to do odd jobs.  Tom insisted that he only wanted to help Mayella because she seemed to do everything on her own.  She looked after the children and the house as the oldest daughter, with her mother long since dead.  Mr. Gilmer pressed for more information.  He further asked why Tom would spend his time helping Mayella when he had his own chores at home.  Tom admitted that he felt sorry for Mayella.

This statement shocked Mr. Gilmer.  He interrupted Tom:

"You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?" Mr. Gilmer seemed ready to rise to the ceiling. (To Kill a Mockingbird, chapter 19)

Immediately Tom knew that he should not have uttered those words.  It was unheard of in Maycomb for a black man to pity a white woman.  Scout, who was sitting up in the balcony, realized that "the damage was done.  Below [her], nobody liked Tom Robinson's answer."  

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