A highly sympathetic character, Mayella Ewell proves to be a confused and emotional young woman when she testifies in the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. The lonely and friendless daughter of Bob Ewell, Mayella spends her life taking care of her younger brothers and sisters while Bob is away drinking and causing trouble. Tom appears to be the only person who shows her any sympathy, volunteering to do chores for her on occasion. But when she tries to show her affection by groping and kissing him, Tom (a married man) beats a retreat. But Bob sees him first, and it is he that beats Mayella for her indiscretion with a black man. Mayella, weak and fearful of her father, apparently agrees to back Bob's story of Tom raping her.
Mayella is out of place in the courtroom--and probably any public setting--and she mistakes Atticus' polite civility for mocking insults. She has never been called "ma'am" or "Miss Mayella" before (except possibly by Tom), and she seems intimidated by the men in the courtroom. Her confusion of the events comes in part from her lack of education, and she is never able to get her story straight. First she says that Tom hit her, then that he didn't, and finally decides that she can't remember. When Atticus asked her how Tom raped her, Mayella replied,
"I don't know how he done it, but he done it.
Atticus "rained questions on her," and the frightened Mayella had no answers. She finally summoned the strength to call all the "fine fancy gentlemen" in the courtroom "yellow, stinkin' cowards," and then said no more. Scout thought that
I guess if she hadn't been so poor and ignorant, Judge Taylor would have put her under the jail for the contempt she showed everybody in the courtroom.
A character deserving of great pity, Mayella loses the sympathy of the reader by turning on the one man who had showed her kindness, and the lies she tells about Tom eventually costs him his life.