In To Kill a Mockingbird, what mistake does Tom Robinson make during his testimony? Explain.

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter 19, Tom Robinson is questioned very aggressively by Mr. Gilmer about his version of events and what happened when he was accused of raping Mayella. Of course, Tom offers a very different view of what happened, and Mr. Gilmer presses him very hard, badgering him with questions. The mistake that Tom makes is when Mr. Gilmer pressurises him to explain why he always helped her out. Tom finally admits that he "felt right sorry for her." Note what happens as a result:

"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 to 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.

What was so bad about this is that Tom said this at a time when blacks were considered to be so much lower than whites. It was not correct for blacks to feel "sorry" for whites as that implied that blacks had it better than whites, which was something impossible in the Maycomb mindset at the time. Mr. Gilmer realises that Tom has said something that will not win him favour with the public or with the jury, and this is why he pauses for a long time. The comment Tom makes therefore relates to the racism in Maycomb society.

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Tom's testimony in chapter 19, he explains to Atticus and the jury that he continually helped Mayella complete her chores whenever she asked for his help. Tom Robinson is portrayed as a compassionate, amiable, and honest individual throughout his entire testimony. During Mr. Gilmer's cross-examination, he brings up the fact that Tom was "mighty generous" to continually offer Mayella help around the house without receiving any type of compensation. When Mr. Gilmer asks Tom why he would continually help Mayella, Tom makes the mistake of saying,

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

Mr. Gilmer immediately capitalizes on Tom's mistake by emphasizing his answer. In the prejudiced society of Maycomb, African Americans are considered second-class citizens and are viewed with contempt by the majority of white citizens. It is utterly incomprehensible to any of the racist community members that a black man would have the audacity to feel sorry for a white person. Scout mentions that nobody liked Tom's answer, and he spends the remainder of his testimony attempting to act like a humble, tolerant black man while Mr. Gilmer openly disrespects him. 

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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