In what ways would you sympathize with Mayella Ewell, and in what ways would you empathize with her?To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Mayella Ewell of To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those poor, unfortunate characters who is born into an environment that is abusive to both her spirit and body.  For, there is little in her oppressed life that affords her any of the human needs of love, comfort, and happiness.  Her attempts to bring some beauty to the rubble in which she lives is apparent by her having planted and nourished the red geraniums that grow in the cracked jars.  Certainly, an empathic reader can enter into the feeling of her terrible loneliness and dismal existence as nearly everyone has felt alienation and dejection at some time.  Others who have experienced any family abuse such as that doled out by Bob Ewell, her father, must be extremely empathic.

And, while the reader does not condone her entreating Tom Robinson to help her break the chiffarobe so that she can lure him inside in order to experience some physical pleasure with him, there is a sympathy for a girl so desperately lonely that she resorts to such an act.  Of course, the sympathy is later mitigated whey Mayella is willing to cruelly sacrifice Tom in order to "save face" in the white community.

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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By the time of the trial, you could make the argument that Mayella is old enough to take responsibility for her actions and recognize differences in ethical choices. To an extent, she does because she is conflicted with how to act. But she has been living in an abusive environment, raising the children on her own, never going to school, and therefore never receiving any influence outside of that home. So, to a large extent she is a product of her environment and should get some sympathy; more than most people in the town who did not have to grow up in such an intellectually stagnant and backward family. Once in the light of the trial, facing the entire town, she feels she must lie to avoid the wrath of her father and to avoid being outcast even more by a town that still has racist tendencies and would look down on her for attempting to seduce Tom. Ironically, the only person in the story who treats Mayella with any kind of compassion or respect, is Tom and he’s the only one she will hurt by protecting herself.

I definitely sympathize with Mayella, but it is hard for me to empathize with her because I’ve never been in that position. Empathy is the ability to co-experience what someone else is going through. However, I would say that you can infer that many people in the town empathized with her because they, like her, would be conflicted between doing the right thing and their residual traces of historical racism. So, someone in town who was friends with blacks and whites would surely empathize with her because they probably have faced ridicule from their white friends for befriending black citizens. Mayella also deserves or would provoke empathy from any character who comes from a broken or abusive home. Empathy is a specific kind of sympathy; communal co-experience. Sympathy can be given regardless of life experience. It is also communal but is general compassion for the suffering of any human being.

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