What "crime" does Atticus say Mayella feels guilt for in Chapter 20 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

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bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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During his summation to the jury, Atticus blames Mayella for the predicament Tom Robinson faces. Atticus admits that he has "pity in my heart" for Mayella, but it does not extend to the lies he claims she has conceived. The guilty party is not Tom, but Mayella: Atticus claims that she is guilty of "no crime" (though she has surely perjured herself during her testimony), but instead she has committed a societal sin of the times. By luring Tom into the Ewell house with the intention of seducing him--or at least receiving her first kiss--she has "broken a rigid and time-honored code" and then she tried to "destroy the evidence of her offense."

"What did she do? She tempted a Negro."  (Chapter 20)

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mlsldy3's profile pic

mlsldy3 | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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In Chapter 20 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is giving his closing statement. Atticus has proven that there is no way Tom Robinson is guilty of the crime Mayella has accused him of, yet he also knows that in a town like Maycomb, the chances of Tom being found innocent are very slim. Atticus goes on to say that Mayella is the one who committed a crime. Mayella is a white woman who tried to tempt a black man. In this society, people just didn't do things like this, and Atticus says that Mayella knows this and tried to cover up her guilt.

"I say guilt, gentlemen, because it was guilt that motivated her. She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance, but I can not pity her: she is white. She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it. She persisted, and her subsequent reaction is something that all of us have known at one time or another. She did something every child has done- she tried to put the evidence of her offense away from her. But in this case she was no child hiding stolen contraband: she struck out at her victim- of necessity she must put him away from her-he must be removed from her presence, from this world. She must destroy the evidence of her offense."

Atticus is trying to show the jury that Mayella was the one who started all of this, and when she got caught, she tried to make Tom look guilty, and because she was white and Tom was black, it worked. Tom will be convicted for what Mayella started.

"She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an uncle, but a strong young Negro man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards."

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readerofbooks's profile pic

readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The above answer gives a partial picture. Atticus says that Mayella's crime is that she thrust herself on a black man, which was against the norms of society. She did this out of desperation and loneliness on account of her poverty and horrible upbringing. When she was caught, shame got the best of her, and so she decided to put the evidence far from her - on Tom Robinson. Atticus feels for her and pities her, but he cannot let this injustice go, because what is at stake is the life of a man - Tom Robinson.

There can be no better answer than Atticus's brilliant summation.

“I say guilt, gentlemen, because it was guilt that motivated her. She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance, but I cannot pity her: she is white. She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it. She persisted, and her subsequent reaction is something that all of us have known at one time or another. She did something every child has done—she tried to put the evidence of her offense away from her. But in this case she was no child hiding stolen contraband: she struck out at her victim—of necessity she must put him away from her—he must be removed from her presence, from this world. She must destroy the evidence of her offense.

“What was the evidence of her offense? Tom Robinson, a human being."

In short, Mayella committed a crime and she must pay the penalty. 

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