In "To Kill a Mockingbird," what is the significance of Tom admitting he felt sorry for Mayella? How does Mr. Gilmer emphasize Tom's error?Chapter 19
The Ewells may be the most despised family in the whole of Maycomb; they may be regarded as nothing more than "white trash" by just about everyone in town; but they still have one thing going for them as far as the criminal justice system is concerned: their skin color. The law is so steeped in bigotry and racial prejudice that the life of a white person, no matter how lower-class, is considered so much more important than that of any African American. The law, in its turn, also reflects a distinct social hierarchy, widespread in Southern society at that particular time, in which lower-class whites such as Mayella Ewell occupy the bottom rung on the social ladder but one, with African Americans kept on the very bottom rung.
That being the case, the very idea of an African American such as Tom Robinson feeling sorry for any white person, is a threat to the dominant racial and social hierarchy. Feeling sorry for someone means that you unconsciously put yourself in a position of superiority to them. This is what allows you to help other people in difficulty. But white Southern society doesn't see Tom's expression of pity for Mayella as indicating compassion; it sees it as an example of an African American who doesn't know his place getting ideas above his station. According to society's prevailing norms, for an African American to feel sorry for a white person is tantamount to placing themselves in a position of dominance and superiority, something that must never be tolerated.
It says a lot about the prevailing values of that time that a simple expression of compassion for another human being is perceived as a dangerous threat to the stability of society. Tom Robinson has unwittingly transgressed the boundaries of what's considered acceptable behavior for an African-American towards a white person. In doing so, he's served to underline the conviction already stuck rigidly in the jurors' minds that he's guilty and deserves punishment for the various transgressive acts against white society he's been accused of.
During this time in history it would be a big deal for a black man to feel sorry for a white woman. In Chapter 19, Mr. Gilmer asks Tom, "Why were you so anxious to do that woman's chores?" He continues to ask questions about this until Tom says, "Yes suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more than the rest of 'em."
Gilmer immediately realized Tom's mistake (as did probably everybody in the courtroom) and emphasized what Tom had said. Gilmer said "You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?" He then gave a dramatic pause to let this sink into the courtroom.
Gilmer really tried his best to get Tom to make this mistake. After asking the question about the chores above, he continued to ask questions to lead Tom to make the response he did.
Because Tom is black and Mayella is white, it would have been insulting for Tom to say he felt sorry for her. Even though the Ewell family lived in extreme poverty, they were still considered higher than blacks in society. In the novel, the emphasis is placed by italics on the "you" and "her" of the quote stressing that if anyone was going to pity anyone it should be the other way around. Mr. Gilmer emphasizes this to the jury, and Scout says she can tell that the people 'down below' (in other words the white folks) don't like Tom's statement.