In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom makes a fatal mistake in his testimony to Mr. Gilmer by saying he felt sorry for Mayella. Why is this the wrong thing for Tom to say?

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, set in Alabama around 1935, Tom Robinson is an African American on trial for the alleged rape of a young white woman named Mayella Ewell. This is enough to seal Tom's fate, not anything he says. One could say Tom's fate was sealed once Mayella kissed him while her father was looking through the window. Others might argue that the fatal choice was when Tom bolted for the prison fences without allowing Atticus the chance to appeal the conviction. What he says to Mr. Gilmer on cross-examination doesn't do anything more than cause a cringe-worthy and awkward moment. Had someone taken out a gun and shot Tom right then and there for saying he was sorry for Mayella, then one could argue that the comment was fatal. As it is, though, the awkward moment is as follows:

"Mr. Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury. 'You're a might good fellow, it seems--did all this for not one penny?'

'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 her?' Mr. Gilmer seemed ready to rise the ceiling.

The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. But the damage was done. Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson's answer. Mr. Gilmer paused a long time to let it sink in" (197). 

Even though his comment is not necessarily fatal, this certainly is the wrong thing to say for a couple of reasons. First, the truth hurts. The Southern white people in the courtroom believe that they are better than black people on all accounts, so they were shocked to hear such an uncommonly heard statement. Second, by Tom saying he felt sorry for her, he was pretty much saying he was in a higher position/status in life. It makes one wonder if they were more insulted that he actually was in a higher moral and ethical position in his life than Mayella, or if they were simply offended that he vocalized it. 

The lengthy deliberation and Atticus's comment about it are other pieces of evidence that show Tom's comment wasn't fatal. Atticus says the following when Jem says the jury made up its mind quickly:

"No it didn't. . . That was the one thing that made me think, well, this may be the shadow of a beginning. That jury took a few hours. An inevitable verdict, maybe, but usually it takes 'em just a few minutes" (222).

The jury was going to convict Tom Robinson no matter what awkward comments he said. Atticus even says the conviction was inevitable. Plus, if the awkward comment had been the clincher, the jury would not have taken as long as it did to deliberate. 


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